Montana Trout Unlimited comments on Proposed 2020 Fishing Regulation Changes

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on the Proposed 2020 Fishing Regulation Changes. As we have reviewed the document, it is evident that a great deal of work and deliberative consideration went in to the development of these proposed changes. We appreciate the ability to have had the opportunity to be involved in the process, and we wanted to be sure to continue our participation in the process by offering formal written feedback on these proposed changes. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and the Fisheries Division in particular, have gone above and beyond to involve the public through both the scoping and public comment process. We appreciate that effort and commitment to a robust public process.

Founded in 1964, Montana Trout Unlimited is the only statewide grassroots organization dedicated solely to conserving, protecting, and restoring Montana’s coldwater fisheries. Montana Trout Unlimited is comprised of 13 chapters across the state and represents approximately 4,500 Trout Unlimited members. A number of our chapters and local members helped inform the comments on the proposed changes that are found below.

Montana Trout Unlimited has great interest in the effects of proposed changes to Montana’s fishing regulations, especially given the increasing challenges facing our native fish resources by threats like climate change, competition and predation from introduced species, and increasing angling pressure. We continue to promote fisheries management that preserves and improves populations of wild fish, with a significant priority on native fish species, such as cutthroat trout, bull trout, and grayling. While our fishing regulations are but one tool that is available through which we can accomplish these goals, we do believe that they do play a significant role in native fish conservation.

Montana Trout Unlimited offers our support the following proposals in the Proposed 2020 Fishing Regulation Changes:

  • Proposal 4 (Clark Fork River): This proposal cleans up the regulations by making fishing catch and release only for Cutthroat Trout from the mouth of the Thompson River to the Idaho border (namely the Thompson Falls, Noxon Rapids, and Cabinet Gorge Reservoirs). We support the standardization of Westslope Cutthroat Trout management on the entire Clark Fork River, and therefore we support this proposed change to catch and release for Westslope Cutthroat on this stretch of the river.
  • Proposals 7, 9, 10, and 15 (Main, South, North, and Middle Fork Flathead River): We support these proposals to restrict terminal gear for the mainstem Flathead and tributaries, including the main three forks above Teakettle Fishing Access Site. Under these changes, anglers would be restricted to single pointed hooks, no treble or double pointed hooks. We know that angling pressure on native fish in these waters has drastically increased in recent years and that increase is forecast to continue. Our members have seen and heard from many local anglers and guides alarming and often fatal mouth damage (ripped mandibles, missing mouth parts) due to hooking-caused wounds, as well as reports of dead fish, likely due to poor playing and releasing techniques, dangerous terminal tackle and increasing angling pressure. Treble hooks play a large part in these wounds. We support efforts to eliminate the use of multi-pointed hooks in the Flathead River system. We believe that removing multi-point hooks from use on populations of threatened native fish will result increased survival and in better overall survival of the population. Again, Montana Trout Unlimited supports these proposals.
  • Proposal 17 (Swan River): We support the conservation of the native Westslope Cutthroat Trout populations in their native range, and therefore we support the proposed change to catch and release regulation for Cutthroat Trout and liberalization of limits on Rainbow Trout on the Swan River.
  • Proposal 34 (Smith River): With the increasing river usage and angler pressure on the Smith River earlier in the season (i.e. March-May), we believe that the proposed changes to implement the standard fishing season (the third Saturday of May through November 30th) for the tributaries between Camp Baker and Eden Bridge to be a responsible regulation change to protect spawning fish during these early months. In these months during higher flows on the mainstem, anglers are increasingly targeting these short stretches of tributaries putting unnecessary stress on spawning populations of Rainbow Trout. We support this proposal.

Montana Trout Unlimited supports modifications to the following proposals to the Proposed 2020 Fishing Regulation Changes:

  • Proposal 2 (Western District Bass Regulation): As part of Proposal 2 to change the standard regulation of Bass in the Western District, the Department would separate regulation of Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass and set a possession limit on Smallmouth Bass of 15 daily and in possession. Montana Trout Unlimited does not feel that treating an illegally planted, aggressive species as a normal game fish and as such believes that setting limits and seasons is consistent with the intent of the Unauthorized Placement of Fish rule (ARM 12.7.1501). The proposal itself notes that there have been 18 confirmed illegal introductions of Smallmouth Bass in the past years and that Smallmouth Bass can outcompete native fish populations. During the scoping process, 68% of respondents supported no possession limit for illegal Smallmouth Bass, but the Department decided to include a 15-fish limit, which moves down the road toward making this dangerous invader an accepted part of our fishery and establishing more illegal populations in Western Montana. We suggest reverting to the original no possession limit in the final regulations.
  • Proposal 31 (Lower Madison River): Under this change, the Department is proposing a permanent “Hoot Owl” restriction for the Lower Madison River from Warm Springs Day Use Area to the confluence of the Jefferson River from July 15 to August 15. Fishing would be prohibited from 2 p.m. to midnight during those thirty days. Montana Trout Unlimited strongly supports protecting trout during these acutely warm water conditions – the likes of which have become the norm for this stretch of river in recent years. We are concerned about the lack of the consistent use of this important tool across the state as we are seeing increasingly warmer waters that are negatively impacting native fish, often because of real or perceived challenges in the short notice of public education and enforcement challenges. We believe that moving to permanent Hoot Owl restrictions will actually make the regulations more predictable and user friendly for anglers. Our only suggestion is to go back to the original proposal that was offered during the scoping period of the Hoot Owl restrictions being in place on the entire stretch below Ennis Dam for the entire months of July and August. 72.5% of survey respondents supported that proposal, and it is certainly supported by the scientific data on stream temperatures on this stretch in recent years. The water temperatures are predictably exceeding healthy thresholds every year, and the original proposed regulation change would be more protective of the fishery resource in this stretch. We hope that you revert to it before you finalize the regulations.

Montana Trout Unlimited opposes the following proposal to the Proposed 2020 Fishing Regulation Changes:

  • Proposal 33 (Missouri River below Holter Dam): Montana Trout Unlimited fully believes that this stretch of the Missouri River below Holter Dam to Cascade should be managed first and foremost as a wild, coldwater trout fishery. We cannot support these proposed changes to the regulations that would compromise the integrity of this world-class trout fishery, and we have long advocated for the current regulation of an unlimited harvest on non-native predatory species like Walleye. The Department should prioritize the management of wild, coldwater trout in this stretch of the Missouri, as they have done, and they should continue to robustly monitor the effect that non-native species, like Walleye, have on the populations of wild Rainbow and Brown Trout in the Missouri.

Beyond the existing proposed changes that we have commented on above, a number of our chapters and member leaders have expressed the need to continue to offer our support for more aggressive efforts to protect native fish through the fishing regulations. First, in regard to terminal tackle we continue to support more aggressive and widespread restrictions on the use of live bait in our coldwater fisheries. Nearly all-scientific studies have found that fishing with bait drastically increases injury to fish. Additionally, we continue to support more widespread use of barbless hook regulations in our most prized native fish water bodies. While the use of barbless hooks cannot definitively be proven to drastically reduce mortality, it is well known that it is easier to release a fish from a barbless hook, which reduces handling time and air exposure. Lastly, as noted in our comments concerning Hoot Owl restrictions on the Lower Madison, Montana Trout Unlimited would support more aggressive permanent and mandatory temperature triggers that initiate Hoot Owl restrictions on our coldwater streams and rivers. In the summer of 2019 there were at least eight streams that reached and sustained water temperatures over 73 degrees for three days – only one, the lower Big Hole had Hoot Owl restrictions enacted.[1] For the reasons previously stated, we support more predictable triggers for Hoot Owl regulations that also better protect our fishery resources.

Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions, or if you need additional information regarding the comments that we have submitted (via email at [email protected] or by phone at 406-543-0054). Again, we thank you for the opportunity to comment, and we appreciate the open public process used by the Department to make these changes.

 

Respectfully,

 

David Brooks

Executive Director

Montana Trout Unlimited

Clayton Elliott

Conservation and Government Relations Director

Montana Trout Unlimited

 

 

 

 

Tip of the Hat 2019 set for July 13

One day each year, Montana Guides and Outfitters donate their tips to Montana Trout Unlimited for on-the-ground conservation projects in their backyards.  If you guide and want to give back or fish with a guide and want to pad your tip – Saturday, July 13th is the day.  With your help and LOTS of strong arming encouragement from event founders Tim Linehan and Brian Neilsen, this 4th year will take us over $10k in donations. For more information about participating in Tip of the Hat, contact MTU’s development director, Kelley Willett.

MTU awards $26,000 in Chapter Mini-Grants in Spring of 2019

Thanks to the generosity of the Michael J. Connell Family Foundation, Montana Trout Unlimited was able grant to $26,000 of funding during its Spring Chapter Mini-Grant cycle.

The Bitterroot Chapter (Hamilton) applied for funds to help support the installation of a self-cleaning, passive fish screen and diversion upgrade to eliminate native trout entrainment in a ditch that diverts water from some of the highest quality bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout habitat in the Bitterroot watershed.  It will also reconnect 39 miles of bull trout and westslope trout stream within the watershed.  The chapter will match the mini-grant contribution with $5,000 of chapter funding.  Christine Brissette of Trout Unlimited will manage the project.

The Flathead Valley Chapter (Kalispell) applied for a grant to contribute to a conservation easement purchase of 155 acres of critical land along the Flathead River southeast of Kalispell.  The conservation easement is being purchased by Flathead Land Trust.  It is part of a 12,000 acre conservation network that protects key bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout habitat.  The project will add to a 12,000-acre conservation network which safeguards 30% of the river bank, 50% of the high quality riparian areas, 53% of the wetlands, 42% of the 100-year floodplain, and 45% of the lands overlying shallow groundwater.  Lots of other partners, including $1,000 chapter contribution, will help leverage over $635,000.

The Joe Brooks Chapter (Livingston) applied for funds to continue the Watershed Warriors program at Gardiner, Arrowhead, and Shields Valley schools.  This project is an ongoing conservation education program run by Matt Wilhelm that puts conservation educators and professionals in fifth-grade classrooms to teach a series of 34 lessons on watershed science.  Students in the program have opportunities to connect their classroom studies to local watershed issues and fly fishing.  Instructors use fly tying, casting, and fishing as means to introduce aquatic entomology, reading water, invasive and native species, cold water restoration, riparian ecology etc.  MTU mini-grants have contributed to this program the past two years.

Missouri River Fly Fishers (Great Falls) applied for money to provide matching funds for a larger grant being pursued by the Sun River Watershed Group.  The larger grant will allow SRWG to hire environmental engineers to design three possible solutions to permanently keep the Sun River connected to an important trout spawning tributary in its lower reach near Fort Shaw. It will also address long-term water quality/sediment issues in this stretch of river that have hindered trout spawning, rearing and survival.  Habitat and water quality are recognized as limiting factors to the Sun River trout fishery.

The Pat Barnes Chapter (Helena) applied for funds to help transport Trout in the Classroom (TIC) students to Spring Meadow State Park to release their trout and test water quality to ensure the lake provides healthy trout habitat.  This effort instills in students the importance of caring for natural habitat for a healthy fish population.  The $1,000 would fully cover this element of the chapter TIC program for the year.  The chapter provides the rest of the annual funding for the program.

The WestSlope Chapter (Missoula)applied for funds to help install a telemetered stream gauge on Rock Creek tributary of the Clark Fork River to monitor daily stream temperatures and flow.  In spite of its renowned status as a native and wild trout fishery, Rock Creek has no stream gauge.  The goal of this project is to sustain the Rock Creek fishery and local agricultural economy through increased education and understanding of the water resource.  Data will be available via the WestSlope chapter website. The chapter is contributing $5,000. Tess Scanlon of Trout Unlimited will manage this project.

Fish fare well at 2019 Montana Legislature

Our efforts in the 2019 Montana Legislature paid off.  Literally.  This session we led sporting and conservation groups’ efforts to secure the most responsible fish and wildlife budgets that have passed the legislature in decades.  Specifically, we restored cuts that important projects and agency divisions suffered in the last biennium.

MTU’s Clayton Elliott worked to assure that Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ (FWP) Fisheries Division has funding to fully staff its native fish program, including an additional full-time position.  We got money returned to FWP’s stream gauge budget, as well as a first-ever investment in the department’s instream flow lease program.  We helped bolster funding for FWP to complete drought management plans that will benefit fisheries statewide.  Our work on HB2, the general budget bill, resulted in restoration of the state’s hatchery program, which was cut in 2017 leading to a 50% cut in the rainbow trout stocking in upper Missouri reservoirs. Plus we got $1.2 million for new state hatchery infrastructure that includes native trout cultivation for restoration work.  The 2019 FWP budget includes additional money ($300,000) for acquiring fishing access sites (FAS) or paying for long-term FAS leases, which is on top of the $2.05 million we helped acquire for maintaining and enhancing current FAS.  We helped repair a budgeting problem that required FWP’s enforcement staff to spend nearly a third of their time doing habitat work, rather than fisheries enforcement and FAS monitoring – their actual job. 

Unfortunately, the legislature failed to see the value in restoring funding from the Smith River special revenue account to fund the Smith River ranger program, but we remain confident the department will be able to find resources for these critical positions during peak use.   Similar to our work on FWP budgets, we helped ensure that the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s (DNRC) will get back its full funding for stream gauges that was cut in 2017, as well as its funding for implementing existing water compacts and managing water right permits or change applications.

Habitat Montana is a critical program that uses sportsman dollars to improve habitat and provide access for Montana’s hunters and anglers across the state. This 20-year old program has been an undeniable success for sportsmen, landowners, and our fish and wildlife resources. While past legislatures have made attempts to block or restrict how the agency uses these funds, we were able protect full spending authority of $8 million, meaning the agency will have the resources it needs to protect hundreds more acres over the next two years. 

MTU works with our national organization, Trout Unlimited, on a number of restoration projects each year, including leading the effort to lobby the legislature in support of two critical funding sources – the Renewable Resources Grant and Loan Program and the Reclamation and Development Grant Program.  This year, our partners in the Upper Clark Fork Program at TU applied for funding from those programs for three projects.  We successfully shepherded those projects through the legislative process, resulting in $125,000 for the removal of the Rattlesnake Dam, $437,000 for the Ninemile Restoration Project, and $285,000 for the Silver King Mine Reclamation. Through these projects, TU will continue to employ dozens of local contractors, improve functionality for landowners and irrigators, and restore critical native fish habitat in the upper Clark Fork benefitting westslope cutthroat and bull trout.

If you’re a hunter or angler you will see a much-needed overhaul of the state’s Automated Licensing System (originally built in 1998) that will make it more user-friendly because of the legislative funding for technology upgrades. 

As anglers, we will also continue to see a more robust aquatic invasive species (AIS) program because of our work this session.  The successful AIS bill extends the program implemented by DNRC and FWP that mandates boat check stations, advanced monitoring of at-risk water bodies, and increased outreach to water users.  The associated AIS funding bill reduced the fees on the angler AIS licenses for non-residents and youth anglers.  It implements a new AIS prevention pass required for out-of-state watercraft, and an additional registration fee for new motorized, resident watercraft. Large hydropower facilities will continue to contribute to AIS prevention.  MTU is proud of our work with a diverse coalition of stakeholders to help craft this balanced approach to funding that recognizes our shared concern for shared resources, and that proves we should all have some skin in the game.  We are similarly encouraged by other budgetary successes that reflect our willingness and ability to work with diverse interests, one bill at a time.  In total, MTU led the effort to secure over $40 million more than was appropriated in 2017 for Montana’s fish and wildlife resources and public access over the next two years.

Our policy work this session was a mix of pluses and minuses.  We led the effort to protect FWP’s ability to own and lease instream flow rights for the purposes of fishery health. This has been a successful program for 30 years that allows willing water right owners to sell or lease their water to FWP as a willing buyer.  We worked with partners to protect senior water rights and the Montana Water Use Act. In addition to restoring stream gauge funding, we helped move a bill that creates a new stream gauge oversight committee, including representation from nonprofit and government entities, which will help ensure these important water measurement tools remain funded into the future.

Lastly, there were no major rollbacks to the laws that protect our coldwater fisheries from the potential damages caused by irresponsible hard rock mining. MTU worked with partners to ensure that the laws, like the recently used “bad actor” provision, were protected by attacks from the mining industry and their legislative allies.  The legislature did pass one bill, HB 722, dealing with the transfer of hard rock mining permits.  We worked behind-the-scenes with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to ensure the bill has adequate sideboards to protect the taxpayers from unfair bond forfeiture and our waterways from potential pollution.

That’s a wrap from the 2019 legislature.  If you have thoughts or questions, please feel free to contact Clayton Elliott (MTU) or Colin Cooney (TU), although after spending 90 long days in the Capitol, they might be gone fishing for a bit.  Well deserved.

Technical comments on the Smith Mine draft EIS

We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Black Butte Copper Project. MTU also appreciates the time constraints that state law compels upon the DEQ to complete this DEIS. Those constraints are one reason for the many problems and gaps in the DEIS. Regardless of those constraints and the deficiencies within this DEIS, it’s clear that the risks this mine poses to water resources warrants our full support of the “No Action” alternative.

You can read our MTU-TU Smith Mine dEIS comments  here

How You Can Help Save the Smith

If you care about the Smith River, we encourage you to write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, as well as to Governor Steve Bullock, your representatives, and also to Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  While DEQ is no longer accepting comments on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the large copper mine a foreign-owned company is proposing in the headwaters of the Smith River, they still need to hear from you. The EIS process is meant to evaluate the real risks this mine poses to the surrounding environment, especially water and wildlife, as well as the recreational economy connected to the Smith River. However, we feel this EIS drastically misses the mark and we will be seeking legal recourse to protect the Smith any way we can.

In its Final EIS, DEQ claims that this mine will not harm the Smith River.  A closer look at the EIS says otherwise.  Here are significant reasons that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place:

  1. This mine seriously risks reducing flows and increasing pollution of the Smith River’s most important trout spawning tributary. The company and the DEIS grossly underestimate how much groundwater connected to the Smith River headwaters will flow into the mine and have to be treated to remove contamination.
  2. The water the company plans to pump back into Smith River tributaries so they don’t dry up due to mining activities is highly likely to contain more acidity, nitrate, and toxins than the DEIS admits. In addition, that replacement water will be warmer than natural stream water. All of those changes in water quality are harmful to aquatic life, fish, and stream habitat.
  3. The company and DEQ haven’t properly considered how to keep contamination from mine waste out of groundwater and surface water that will flow into the Smith River system. They also have failed to evaluate the high likelihood that wastes from this mine will create acid mine drainage laden with arsenic and other mine contaminants.
  4. The company’s plans to keep mine waste and the contaminants it produces from adversely affecting the environment for decades or generations is very experimental. They provide no good evidence that it will work.  The Smith River is their guinea pig.
  5. An EIS is required to take “hard look” at the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of the proposed action. However, the DEIS has not properly or sufficiently examined threats to the aquatic life in the Smith River and its tributaries.

Need help drafting you letter or knowing where to send it? Contact our Outreach Coordinator for assistance. Email [email protected] for more information and assistance. Please see the addresses below for places to direct your comments.

Last but not least, our legal challenge of the EIS will require attorney’s fees, expert witnesses, and many other expenses. Visit our Donation Page to make a contribution for our effort to Save Our Smith.

Governor Steve Bullock
PO Box 200801
Helena MT 59620-0801

Craig Jones
Department of Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 200901
Helena, MT 59601