Over the past two decades, the walleye population in northwestern Montana's Noxon Reservoir has steadily grown. The fish have proven popular among certain anglers, and have spread as far down the Clark Fork as Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille. There's just one problem: Noxon shouldn't have walleye.
The fish are there as a result of illegal introductions, which state officials say most likely occurred in the early 1990s. Bruce Farling, executive director at Montana Trout Unlimited, calls the perpetrators "midnight bucket biologists," rogue anglers who import fish from elsewhere and release them in nonnative waters. Region 1 Supervisor James Satterfield with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks adds it doesn't take much for them to get something started.
"Most of these illegal introductions started with just a handful of fish," Satterfield says. "Believe it or not, [FWP] did an analysis on the DNA of the lake trout in Swan Lake and concluded that that population started with like 2.7 fish."
Farling says walleye in Noxon are problematic for many reasons. They're a highly competitive species and can edge out native trout and bass populations. Plus, they're spreading. It's just one example of a major issue wildlife managers across the West are facing. FWP estimates that 295 illegal introductions of fish species have already occurred in Region 1 alone.
"You got to catch the guy either red-handed or he's got to have a big mouth," Satterfield says. "We haven't had an awful lot of luck apprehending people that do this."
FWP released an environmental assessment last month outlining plans to tackle Noxon's walleye problem. The proposal called for gillnetting and electrofishing during spawning in an effort to put a dent in the population. But Satterfield says the "vast majority" of public comment opposed the plan.
"We got a lot of comments from local anglers and local citizens that are worried about the impacts on the economy that they feel a blossoming walleye fishery could provide," Satterfield says.
Satterfield says his office will most likely respond by drafting a new EA and providing more public inclusion, perhaps even an advisory group. But ultimately, he adds, "it's not a vote."
Even if FWP moves forward with such a plan, Satterfield acknowledges there's nothing the agency could possibly do to eliminate the walleye entirely. "I don't believe we could eradicate walleye in that reservoir if the history of human civilization rested on it," Satterfield says.