Blackfoot Management strategies: informing direction in the 2024 statewide fisheries management plan

Wild trout management is a cornerstone of fisheries management in Montana. Here in the Blackfoot, a primary focus of our river and stream management program is native, wild trout.

The Blackfoot has a long history of habitat restoration with an emphasis on native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. Actions that benefit these species also improve habitat conditions for nonnative trout that represent an extremely popular and important component of sport fishing opportunity. Several key elements of our management portfolio in these popular wild fisheries include population monitoring, habitat protection, and habitat restoration.

Most of the angling use on popular rivers in western Montana has shifted to catch and release fly fishing, so our contemporary approach to fisheries management is different than when angling participation was dominated by anglers that harvested their catch. Even as recently as the late-1980s, creel surveys indicated that anglers preferred harvesting fish they caught that were over 12 inches. Periodic creel surveys over the last three decades demonstrated a shift away from harvest-oriented bait fishing towards a recreational fishery largely comprised of fly anglers participating in catch and release angling even if regulations allowed harvest. Because we no longer need to frequently adjust bag limits and size restrictions in response to harvest rates and corresponding fish population status, management tools are somewhat limited compared to traditional management techniques where regulation changes elicited strong responses from fish populations.

In catch and release, wild trout fisheries, our primary management tools are related to habitat. Where high quality habitat is contributing to healthy fisheries, we focus on keeping those components intact. Where habitat is degraded, we use fish surveys and research to understand what factors are broken. We can use that knowledge to implement habitat restoration projects to improve those conditions and, ultimately, the fishery.

Fisheries monitoring

Our river and stream surveys focus on long term status and trend monitoring of fish populations, as well as targeted research to identify problems that can be addressed through restoration actions. We also conduct project-specific effectiveness monitoring to understand the benefits of individual restoration projects to inform future efforts. Fisheries research and monitoring have identified important spawning and rearing areas, as well as habitat issues and limiting factors in those locations.

We survey trout populations in the mainstem Blackfoot River every two years using drift boat electrofishing units. Surveys were conducted this year from late-May through early-June. We have documented a long-term increase in the abundance of westslope cutthroat trout following harvest restrictions in 1990 and comprehensive restoration actions over the last three decades. Cutthroat, rainbow, and brown trout populations have remained stable over the last several years, even with persistent drought and harsh conditions during last winter.

Angler pressure in the Blackfoot River has increased from around 30,000 angler days per year in the 1990s to over 90,000 angler days in recent years. Despite this pronounced increase in angling activity, catch rates and angler satisfaction remain high. This is a testament to the ability of wild trout production to sustain high quality, recreational fisheries. Overall, the size structure and abundance of trout in the Blackfoot River indicate that the current management paradigm of allowing unrestricted angling pressure in this popular fishery is compatible with maintaining diverse fishing opportunities for those anglers that wish to harvest fish or use bait outside of bull trout conflict areas. Our management strategies balance fishing and tackle restrictions in priority native trout areas with more liberal regulations elsewhere to provide maximum angling opportunity without compromising conservation goals.

Habitat restoration and protection

To accomplish our habitat restoration objectives, we collaborate with a suite of partners including Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Blackfoot Challenge, The Nature Conservancy, and state and federal government agencies. Most restoration projects occur in important spawning and rearing tributaries to improve trout production in natal areas to recruit more fish to the mainstem river for anglers to enjoy. This consortium of watershed groups and agencies have implemented landscape-scale conservation efforts in the Blackfoot that have protected entire watersheds with high aquatic values, worked with private landowners to enact conservation easements on properties with high resource values, and implemented over 200 stream habitat restoration projects.

In addition to collaborating with our restoration partners, we work with local conservation districts to provide technical expertise for fisheries and aquatic resources related to administration of the Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act (also known as the “310 Law”). This law requires non-government entities (i.e., private landowners) to apply for a permit when conducting any work that alters the bed or banks of perennial streams. While local conservation districts administer the 310 Law, FWP has regulatory authority over the Stream Protection Act. This law is similar to the 310 Law, but requires government entities to apply for SPA 124 permits when conducting any work that will affect the natural shape and function of a stream and its banks. Collectively, these habitat protection regulations allow us to influence actions that could negatively impact streams, and work with applicants to implement actions in ways that minimize impacts to streams and aquatic resources.

Statewide Fisheries Management Plan

Our management strategies are guided by the Statewide Fisheries Management Plan. The plan includes overarching statewide management direction as well as detailed watershed sections that dive into specific waterbody proposals. The draft plan will be released for public comment at the end of August. Please keep an eye out for press releases and check the FWP website for instructions on reviewing and commenting. The department will accept public comment through September. This is your opportunity to provide your valuable input and let us know what you like, dislike, or want to see added to our management proposals. This comprehensive document covers many topics, so don’t hesitate to call one of your local biologists with questions.

 

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