Conserving this Nation’s fish and other aquatic resources cannot be successful without the partnership of Tribes; they manage or influence some of the most important aquatic habitats both on and off reservations. In addition, the Federal government and the Service have distinct and unique obligations toward Tribes based on trust responsibility, treaty provisions, and statutory mandates.
Trout on Tribal Lands
...Today many of these increased recreational fishing opportunities in Montana and beyond are a direct result of the tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working together with several other partners ...
Fishing and hunting opportunities provided by Indian tribes in Montana are boundless. The landscape is as diverse as anywhere in the country. In Montana, you will find high mountain alpine terrain with majestic peaks that level out into the rolling hills and the vast areas of prairie grasslands. As a further measure of that diversity, the many beautiful rivers and streams flow either west to the Pacific Ocean, southeast to the Gulf of Mexico, or northeast toward the great Hudson Bay in Canada. The prairies harbor lakes and ponds that provide excellent fishing as well. Nature separated these flows in different directions, and nature filled them with their own fishes. Nature provides some of the best fishing found anywhere in the world on Indian lands in Montana.
What nature doesn’t provide is helped along by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (MTFWCO) in Bozeman. Much of what this office does centers on providing fisheries technical services to seven Indian reservations in Montana. These reservations encompass over 7,000,000 acres.
The MTFWCO is one of the largest tribal assistance programs in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Biologists work with the tribes to assist them in a wide variety of projects. MTFWCO biologists wade knee-deep in restoration efforts for populations of important fishes on Indian lands, like the bull trout – a species listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and close kin of the brook trout and Dolly Varden. Bull trout have been extensively studied for several years on the Blackfeet Reservation in the St. Mary River drainage. We have assessed the stream fish communities and monitored the status and distribution of the bull trout, trying to better understand what limits its numbers. A special rule in the Endangered Species Act fortunately allows limited sport fishing for the threatened bull trout. Were it listed as “endangered,” that would be another matter.
From the technical assistance and information provided by the MTFWCO, the Blackfeet Tribe decided to close commercial fishing for lake whitefish on the lower St. Mary Lake and thus reduce associated adverse effects on bull trout. The Tribe has lowered bull trout harvest by implementing catch-and-release regulations. Toward habitat conservation for bull trout, the Blackfeet Tribe works with the Bureau of Reclamation to manage flows below Lake Sherburne so as to protect spawning and rearing habitat – trying to get the right flows at the right places – when the trout need them. Protecting fish by angling regulations and conserving habitat is meaningless if fish are lost to irrigation, only to dry out in a field. MTFWCO biologists have worked with the Bureau of Reclamation to design an elaborate fish screening system in the St. Mary Canal to keep fish where they belong – in the water. Congress supports the project.
The westslope cutthroat trout is another fish we work with. MTFWCO biologists have implemented a fish stocking program on the lower St. Mary drainage and the Creston National Fish Hatchery provides westslope cutthroat to bolster the St. Mary’s population and enhance fishing opportunities. This year we will be increasing our studies on Yellowstone cutthroat trout on the Crow Reservation. The Crow have received a Tribal Wildlife Grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study the venerable trout. The MTFWCO and the Tribe will assess populations of this native trout throughout the Bighorn Mountain range on the Reservation. The Tribe is eager to conserve Yellowstone cutthroat trout and was the first to sign onto the statewide “Conservation Agreement for Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Montana.” The goals under the agreement are to maintain, secure and enhance existing populations where possible; continue to survey waters to discern their distribution, abundance, and genetic status; and seek collaborative opportunities to restore or expand these trout populations in other areas of the Reservation. This may include stocking fish.
Today many of these increased recreational fishing opportunities in Montana and beyond are a direct result of the tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working together with several other partners to restore native fish species, and to stock waters which were essentially void of fish. Perhaps the most significant impact of increased revenues to the tribes has been their ability to establish their own Fish and Wildlife Departments that oversee the conservation, protection and preservation of their vital natural resources. Fishing provides employment to many tribal members, thereby reducing the overall unemployment rates, which typically are higher than the national average.
A tribal leader, Earl Old Person, Chief of the Blackfeet Nation, once said, “Come to our lands. Enjoy the many opportunities we have and get to know our people and our culture, and hence we can get to know you. And remember if you need to talk to the Creator while you’re here, it’s just a local call.” (Ron Skates).