Few hikers ever reach Glacier National Park’s Grace Lake. Fish have an even harder time getting there.
That makes it a perfect spot to try some ambitious research aimed at helping the park’s native fish endure a future of climate change and invasive species. A plan outlining the long-range goals for that research is up now for public review.
“We’re trying to lay out a vision for where we’re going in the next 10 to 20 years,” said Chris Downs, Glacier’s head fisheries biologist. “We want as much as we can to restore things to their natural state. It’s going to be a substantial level of activity for the park.”
In the case of Grace Lake, a substantial waterfall blocks natural fish migration between it and the much-larger Logging Lake on the park’s west side. Grace would have been fish-less, except that the National Park Service decided to artificially stock it with Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the 1920s.
The waterfall has kept native westslope cutthroat and bull trout out of Grace. It also has blocked access to lake trout, an invasive species that has nearly wiped out the natives since it colonized most of Glacier's western lakes from Flathead Lake.
“We’re looking at what we can do to help native fish in a changing climate,” Downs said. “Invasive fish occupy habitat, which reduces natives’ ability to adapt to climate changes. That’s made us think we may have to do things differently, like maybe expand populations to new areas of the park. Like moving bull trout upstream of the waterfall to Grace Lake.”
Park biologists already have done extensive work on the Grace Lake project, and even moved some bull trout there. That may have been just in time. In 2014, they were able to capture 111 juvenile bull trout in the stream above Logging Lake. Last year, they found just a single bull.
The research plan up for consideration would direct management of all Glacier’s fish habitat. The million-acre park has 725 lakes and ponds, more than 174 perennial marshes and wetlands, and about 1,500 miles of perennial streams within its boundaries. Those water bodies host 17 native fish species and a wide array of amphibians and aquatic insects.
“Glacier National Park’s native aquatic ecosystems are essential in maintaining regional biodiversity,” Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said. “However, the park’s lakes and streams are increasingly threatened by non-native invasive fish and other organisms, and by the impacts of climate change. This plan will evaluate a variety of methods for addressing these threats in a comprehensive way.”
Tactics considered include moving native fish to new homes; removing non-native fish by netting, trapping, electrofishing and poisoning; and allowing some lakes to either naturally repopulate or remain fishless. Work crews may build fish passage barriers in some places to prevent invasive species from reaching pristine habitats. The plan considers changes to Glacier’s angling rules, including whether to impose fees or permits on the currently unregulated activity.
The proposed plan has several alternatives, including using only mechanical means like netting and trapping to remove nonnative fish or chemical means like rotenone. Alternatives proposed by the public also may be considered.
“Because of Glacier’s geological history, it has a lot of self-contained laboratories where we can preserve functioning native ecosystems at a smaller scale,” said Wade Fredenberg, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who coordinates with Downs and the Glacier research. “But there’s a lot we don’t know. When you see a lake trout in the upper North Fork of the Flathead River above Polebridge, we don’t know with certainty where those fish came from. They could have come from Kintla Lake as easily as Flathead.”
The North Fork and Middle Fork of the Flathead River form extensive parts of Glacier’s boundaries. The park shares biological management with other federal agencies and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for those waters. Ole, Park and Nyaak creeks serve as important bull trout spawning streams that reinforce those species’ numbers in Flathead Lake.
Public comments are due by Wednesday, May 11. The scoping brochure is available through the park’s planning website: parkplanning.nps.gov/FishAquaticsPlanEIS. Comments can be made directly through this website. Written comments can also be submitted to: Superintendent, Glacier National Park, Attn: Fish and Aquatics Plan/EIS, PO Box 128 West Glacier, Montana 59936.
Public scoping meetings will be held on Wednesday, May 4, in Great Falls at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and on Thursday, May 5, in Kalispell, at the Flathead National Forest Supervisor’s Office from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.