Montana Trout Unlimited has stepped out in support of a proposed ballot initiative that will be an asset in protecting our coldwater fisheries from mining contamination and protecting tax payers from the burden of cleanup.
Mining pollution from acid mine drainage, arsenic, mercury and lead is contaminating our water and threatening public health. Out-of-state and foreign mining companies have a history of sending their profits overseas, breaking their promises, and then going bankrupt, leaving Montanans to deal with their toxic pollution that requires treating contaminated water forever. It’s unfair that Montana taxpayers are left to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in clean-up costs while these mining companies walk away with billions in profits. It’s time to hold these foreign mining companies accountable and making sure future mining is done responsibly.
This initiative is about protecting Montana taxpayers and public health, and holding foreign mining companies accountable. It will require a reclamation plan for new hardrock mines that prevents permanent pollution from acid mine drainage and water contaminated by arsenic, lead and mercury. It does not affect existing mining operations.
Read more about the ballot initiative in this fact sheet – YES for responsible mining
Since the last ice age, bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) have survived in the cold, clear waters of the northwest. Habitat degradation, dams, invasive species, warming waters and overharvest have significantly reduced their numbers and range in the last century. Even after being listed as a threatened species in 1998, the current range of bull trout is surprisingly not well known. We know the present distribution in major systems such as the Middle Fork, South Fork and North Fork of the Flathead. But many smaller streams remain undocumented. Having a clear picture of where bull trout continue to survive will help ensure all currently occupied bull trout habitat is protected and managed to help recover the species.
To those ends, the US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station is using an emerging technology known as environmental DNA (eDNA) to determine the presence or absence of a species in aquatic systems that is more sensitive for detecting target organisms and faster and less expensive than previous methods. eDNA is simply the technique of collecting water samples, filtering out microscopic bits of DNA shed by organisms in the waterbody, and checking to see if your target organism’s genetic material is present. This technology is being used in Montana to sample for the presence of invasive zebra and quagga mussels in Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs.
The goal of the Forest Service effort is to complete a range-wide inventory of bull trout using a crowd-based approach. By engaging volunteers from a wide range of organizations, including the Flathead Valley TU chapter, the Forest Service is able to greatly expand its effort to document bull trout. Our chapter has long been involved in bull trout conservation and restoration. We created a public service announcement to increase awareness of bull trout fishing regulations and proper catch and release techniques with the slogan “Every Bull Trout Counts”. We are heavily engaged with lake trout suppression efforts in Swan and Flathead Lakes, and we continue to review Montana FWP bull trout redd counts every year.
Volunteering to see if there are undocumented streams with bull trout populations in the Flathead was a natural fit for our chapter. We reviewed Forest Service maps identifying streams to inventory and decided to focus on the Upper Stillwater and Whitefish Rivers. The Forest Service provided sterile sampling equipment and instruction. We provided the hardy sampling crew. Using GPS as our guide, we often bushwhacked several hundred yards through the heavily vegetated riparian areas of northwest Montana to access sampling sites spaced roughly one kilometer apart on a stream. Taking samples by pumping 5 liters of stream water through a filter was comparatively easy. We labeled our samples by site and returned them to the Forest Service for testing. This spring we plan to partner with students from the Whitefish Independent High School who have shown an interest in conservation to continue our efforts in an even more remote section of the upper Whitefish River!
If you are interested in learning more about eDNA, the bull trout monitoring effort, or getting involved in this important citizen science project, go to: www.fs.fed.us/rm/boise/AWAE/projects/BullTrout_eDNA.html
Or contact Mike Young at the Forest Science Lab in Missoula at 406-542-3254 or email at email@example.com.
Larry Timchack, Flathead Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited
Winter 2018 Trout Line
Thank you to all our members and supporters who stood up for protecting the Smith River from a risky mine in its headwaters. Whether you attended one of the four public hearings or wrote comments to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) about the threats the Black Butte mine poses to the many water quality and quantity, fisheries, and recreational values of the Smith River, your voice made a difference. When MTU first pressed for more than one public hearing on this matter, DEQ countered that there wasn’t enough interest. We let the department know that if it didn’t hold additional hearings, we would. We pressed the Governor’s office about the need for wider public input and reiterated this need to DEQ on several occasions. In addition, we engaged two business partners – Simms and Yellowdog Outfitters – to advocate that the state hold more hearings to allow outdoor recreation businesses, like theirs, to fully express the need to protect the Smith River. Our persistence paid off, and the DEQ responded with additional hearings. The hearings DEQ added in Great Falls, Helena, and Livingston each drew large, lively, well-informed crowds. DEQ was inundated with more than 10,000 oral and written public comments.
With the release of the DEQ’s report on this robust public comment, it appears the department has heard the wealth of concerns for the Smith River’s protection. Although a very restrictive Montana law, drafted and backed by the mining lobby, which the 2011 Legislature passed, shackles the DEQ with a one-year deadline to complete an environmental impact statement covering all the possible risks of a proposal like the Black Butte mine, MTU will continue to monitor the department’s review process closely. We expect every stone to be overturned in evaluating how this mine will put the Smith River and its fishery in harm’s way. If the DEQ sticks to the short timeline for its review, the public will have another, very important, opportunity to comment on the fate of the Smith River early next summer. So, in addition to marking your calendar for possible Smith River float days, be prepared to make some more noise on its behalf. We’ll keep you posted. Check www.smithriverwatch.org or Montana Trout Unlimited on Facebook.
Winter 2018 Trout Line
In the last year, I’ve heard reports of two-headed fish and seen a photo of a two-beaked shore bird at Lake Koocanusa. Concern that selenium flowing downstream into the lake from coal mines in the Elk River watershed of British Columbia has been mounting for at least a decade. As the urgency of this issue has grown with reports of fish and wildlife deformities, evidence of selenium accumulating in the aquatic ecosystem, and the threat of expanded coal mining that is causing the problem, MTU has stepped up our efforts to protect the greater Kootenai River watershed in Montana. Last month we notched a hard-earned victory by helping to get the U.S. State Department to commit to begin the process of enforcing a Treaty with Canada that calls for protection of transboundary waters.
In 1972 the Libby Dam began impounding the waters of Lake Koocanusa for flood control and generating hydroelectric power. Once filled, the reservoir stretched 90 miles north of Libby, MT. At its upper end Koocanusa is fed by the Kootenai River and two of its main tributaries, the Bull and Elk Rivers. Because of their wild character and cold waters, the Bull and Elk are both renown westslope cutthroat and bull trout fisheries. While angling is an important tradition on these rivers, so is coal mining. Coal has been dug out of the ground in the Elk basin for over a hundred years. Today, Canadian company Teck Coal operates five coal mines, one of the country’s largest coal mining complexes. These mines spill sediment, cadmium, nitrates, sulfites, and selenium into the Elk. Libby dam backs up those contaminants in Koocanusa.
Of those contaminants, selenium is the biggest problem for the system’s aquatic life. Selenium moves up the food chain as organisms feed on each other. As selenium increases in a fish’s tissue it can shorten gill covers, twist spines, and cause deformities (like two heads). But those visible signs of selenium toxicity are not common. Selenium, once it bioaccumulates in mature trout and other fish species, causes eggs not to hatch. So, it’s a true ticking time-bomb. It’s possible to see no effects on fish until selenium levels are high enough to wipe out an entire reproductive cycle. The situation could be approaching that point in Lake Koocanusa.
MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) biologists have been studying the movement of selenium through the Koocanusa food web for years. In 2018 the department will finish its third five-year fish tissue sampling effort, which will help determine the state’s selenium standard for the reservoir. There’s well-founded concern that the fishery’s bull trout, westslope cutthroat, white fish, burbot (ling), kokanee, and much sought-after rainbow trout, which regularly mature to a whopping 10 or 12 pounds, could be at the tipping point for selenium toxicity.
Mike Rooney, Kootenai Valley TU chapter president, often fishes the Elk River in BC. Last fall when he did so, he caught plenty of fish and saw no tell-tale deformities associated with the upstream mines. But, Mike has seen the mines and knows they dwarf the Berkeley Pit and that they are sending toxins down into Montana waters every minute of every day. Because of that, Mike has been at the heart of our efforts to push the state to set and enforce a selenium standard in Koocanusa, to get the US State Department involved, and to halt the expansion of mine development in the Elk River until the problem of protecting Montana’s resources is solved. We opened 2018 with a small but significant victory toward those ends.
In addition to Mike Rooney’s efforts with Lincoln County decision-makers, state biologists and fishery managers, and the public, MTU has joined a group of other stakeholders in meetings with Montana Senator Jon Tester and Governor Steve Bullock’s staff. Those conversations resulted in a joint letter sent by Sen. Tester and Gov. Bullock to US State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson pressing for the US and Canadian governments to uphold the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, which obligates both countries to avoid polluting shared waters that would cause harm in either country. In his response, Tillerson committed to starting a process with his Canadian counterparts to address coal mine pollution from BC and its impacts to Montana.
Selenium has been flowing into northwest Montana waters for decades in direct relation to BC’s exportation of low-grade coal to overseas steel-manufacturing industries. Getting our state to set a rigorous standard for this aquatic contaminant and seeing that standard upheld across an international border is a much-needed step toward protecting the Kootenai watershed. That’s why we agree with Senator Tester’s response to Secretary Tillerson’s new direction that he “will hold their feet to the fire to ensure they follow through, because clean water is our most valuable resource and we must protect it for future generations.”
Winter 2018 Trout Line