Colliding with a wolf at dusk while driving along the highway, or killing a grizzly bear in self-defense during hunting season is one thing. These are unintentional and generally accepted, if unfortunate, liabilities of human/wildlife co-existence.
Poisoning a wolf involved in reintroduction, or shooting a grizzly bear for sport, however, are different matters entirely. These are deliberate, illegal acts for which people have found themselves in court.
But human-caused mortality of bull trout, whether intentional or not, is a difficult phenomenon to monitor, making protection of the endangered species a tricky business.
“Basically, it’s a tough one,” says Lloyd Acker, warden sergeant for the Missoula region of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).
Last year the state agency issued seven citations for illegal possession of bull trout. Four citations were issued in 2000 and none has been issued yet this year. No one was charged with intentionally fishing for bull trout during that same period.
Obviously, bull trout live in rivers and streams inhabited by other fish, so proving that a fisherman deliberately set out to catch the protected native species instead of, say, a brook trout, is a difficult if not impossible task for game wardens.
In addition, bull trout have a similar appearance as brook trout, so ignorance and misidentification can lead to unintentional harvesting instead of release back into the water. According to Acker, unintentional harvesting results in more charges of illegal possession than illegal fishing.
However, there is one time of year when deliberately fishing for bull trout becomes readily apparent to wildlife agents. In the fall, the fish migrate from rivers to smaller creeks that are dramatically out of proportion with their size. According to Acker and Ken McDonald of the Helena FWP office, it’s not uncommon to see a 30-inch bull trout from the Blackfoot River in a stream like Monture Creek during low autumnal flows.
The sight of such an enormous fish that “looks like your arm” clearing a redd, or spawning nest, in the gravel with its tail can overwhelm the conscience of an angler. Even more enticing, a school could be biding its time at a lower junction before finishing its migration upstream.
“[When] they’re staging there waiting for the right cue to move up, we close the mouth of the stream [for several hundred yards in either direction] to help remove that irresistible urge,” McDonald says.
Yet anglers fishing for bull trout in spawning streams may leave their own conclusive evidence of violating the law: their choice of equipment.
“Big fish don’t get big by just eating insects. They get big because they eat a lot of smaller fish,” Acker says. “So people use great big lures, lures too big for the body of water they’re fishing in.”
If someone is caught with his line in the water and a suspicious lure on the end, a citation for illegal taking may be in order. Still, estimating the impact of illegal fishing on bull trout populations remains a challenge, more so than, say, estimating the impact of human-caused mortality on wolves, which itself is challenging enough, says Joe Fontaine, assistant coordinator of the wolf recovery program.
“We know the ones we kill for control and we know the ones when we find a body [with a radio collar],” Fontaine says. “But not those who disperse, get hit by a car and die in a ditch.”
About 40 deaths were noted in the year-end report for gray wolves monitored in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho last year. Two-thirds were killed by wildlife managers and the remainder were killed accidentally, such as by cars and trains, or deliberately by humans.
Wildlife officials can account for less than half of the actual deaths, Fontaine estimates, but since populations continue to grow the number must not be too high. In 2000 there were 433 breeding pairs in the three-state recovery area. In 2001 there were 563.
Similarly, McDonald says that bull trout mortality must not be very high because those populations are growing as well. Fishery biologists are establishing index streams so that their numbers can be compared from year to year, but even without baseline data, evidence of bull trout recovery is abundant.
“We feel pretty good about where things are going,” McDonald says. “They are appearing in new streams and you can actually go in and count those nests. They are really obvious. Clean gravel surrounded by darker algae-covered gravel.”
Unlike wolves and bears, bull trout are not a controlled population. Wildlife managers kill wolves for their depredation of livestock and bears for developing the wrong kind of people skills, if harassment or removal fails to change problematic behavior.
Yet a century ago, bull trout were subjected to government sponsored control efforts because they were considered nuisance predators, like wolves. Bull trout consume more desirable fish such as rainbow trout, McDonald says, but only recently have public attitudes begun to change toward Montana’s native fish.
On the other hand, bull trout have never engendered the fear and resentment that plagues grizzly bears and wolves and their need for large tracts of contiguous, undeveloped land.
Under federal law, bull trout habitat must be considered in every major land management decision, but thus far the fish has not yet been used as a lever in major environmental battles. Such battles may lie in the future, though experts acknowledge that it may be hard to muster the same level of public sympathy for a deliberately killed bull trout as for a dead wolf or grizzly bear.