Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has put a hit out on introduced walleye in Swan Lake.
At Thursday’s FWP commission meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a regulation requiring anglers to kill any walleye they catch in Swan Lake, report the incident and then turn the carcass in to FWP for analysis.
Little more than a month has passed since FWP biologists caught two walleye while sampling for lake trout and raised the alarm that walleye had been illegally introduced in Swan Lake.
Region 1 Fisheries manager Mark Deleray didn’t know if or how many walleye might remain, but he decided to pursue aggressive action in trying to eradicate walleye from the lake.
Fisheries administrator Bruce Rich said the catch-and-kill regulation was needed to act as a disincentive for other illegal fish introductions in the state and to keep a walleye population from becoming established in Swan Lake and possibly continuing downstream into Flathead Lake.
“We’ve never in my career asked for a mandatory kill regulation,” Rich said. “If you approve it, we’ll implement it immediately and carry it over to the 2016 regulations.”
All commissioners expressed disappointment that they had to be dealing with a situation where someone thought introducing walleyes to a cold-water fishery was a good idea.
“It’s not that we don’t like walleye – that’s not what this is about. This is about managed fisheries and once you release these fish into the water, we deal with the consequences for a very long time,” said chairman Dan Vermillion. “I hope the legislature at the next session will seriously consider raising these penalties.”
With the next Montana Legislature more than a year away, some anglers’ organizations have stepped up to bring justice to bear.
Montana Trout Unlimited has pledged $20,000 to go to people providing information leading to a conviction. Another $4,500 has been offered by a Montana Anglers’ Forum, including groups such as Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, the Montana Bass Federation, Pike Masters, Montana Wildlife Federation and even Walleyes Forever and Walleyes Unlimited.
Mike Rumple, state Walleyes Unlimited vice president, said his organization supported the catch-and-kill regulation because WU has long opposed illegal introductions.
Montana Trout Unlimited executive director Bruce Farling said Montana waters have suffered more than 600 illegal introductions of non-native fish. One of those was an earlier introduction of walleye into Noxon Reservoir west of the Montana-Idaho border that now threatens the native trout and bass.
“We’d like to see it elevated at par at least with how we punish wildlife crimes,” Farling said. “(The walleye) been leaking downstream into Idaho, and we now have a reproducing population in Lake Pend Orielle. That’s putting into jeopardy their multi-million-dollar kokanee fishery, bull trout fishery and Gerrard rainbow fishery. I’m going to ask you to look at a similar catch-and-kill proposal for Noxon.”
Wade Fredenberg, U.S. Fish and Wildlife bull trout coordinator, said he didn’t want Swan Lake ending up like Noxon Reservoir and Lake Pend Orielle. Swan Lake is one of the top three water bodies in the state for threatened bull trout, in spite of the fact that bull trout are already struggling to compete with lake trout that were introduced in 1998 or earlier.
The effort to eradicate lake trout has already cost more than $1 million. The addition of walleye could “put a major monkey wrench in that,” Frederberg said.
In an effort to learn more about the population and migration, biologists tagged some lake trout in Swan Lake in 2007. In the years that followed, fishermen have caught as many as 20 of the tagged lake trout in Flathead Lake.
Frederberg said if the same were to happen with walleye and they begin to spread throughout the Columbia River headwaters, it would jeopardize the ability to remove bull trout from the Endangered Species list.
Retired FWP Region 1 Fisheries manager Jim Vashro said he battled fish introductions for 30 years and discovered another downside: Introductions could divide the angling community into those who wanted the fish and those who didn’t.
“Swan Lake is the tenth documented illegal introduction of walleyes west of the divide – it’s an ongoing problem,” Vashro said. “But I’m pleased to see angling groups taking this seriously.”