Stopping illegal fish dumping in Montana before it’s too late

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a story that comes to us via our network of Student Reporting Labs around the country.

Meri DeMarois of the University of Montana and her mentor, Anna Rau of Montana PBS, look at the dangers of illegal fish dumping in that region's rivers and what is being done to protect Montana's celebrated fishing traditions.

CAREY SCHMIDT, Fisherman: Montana's a special place with these rivers. Trout fishing is part of our heritage, and especially, you know, native trout, like the Westslope cutthroat or the Yellowstone cutthroat or bull trout. I think catching those fish is just really special. It really connects you to the river and to the — to, you know, a part of Montana's past.

MERI DEMAROIS, University of Montana: Carey Schmidt began fishing in Montana as a child. Today, he is a busy lawyer and father, but he tries to get on the river as much as possible to enjoy native fish species.

CAREY SCHMIDT: I think trout are just a really charismatic species that people want to come to Montana to catch. If they don't find trout, they're not going to come here.

MERI DEMAROIS: Schmidt has reason to be concerned, because, beneath the surface, there's more going on that could affect fishing in the state. People are illegally dumping new fish species like northern pike, walleye, and lake trout into Montana's waters.

BRUCE FARLING, Executive Director, Montana Trout Unlimited: Now, what's happening now, with the illegal introductions, is we have people who aren't professional biologists. We have people who are going out there at night, thinking they know better.

MERI DEMAROIS: Bruce Farling is the executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit conservation organization. He says professional biologists introduce fish that will hopefully restore and maintain ecosystems, while bucket biologists are dumping in species they would like to fish for.

BRUCE FARLING: Those are professional fishery biologists, and so they understand the biological implications of putting something in a particular place.

There are certain laws they have to follow. They just don't do it at 2:00 in the morning, when it's dark, with a bucket, and not tell anybody.

LISA EBY, University of Montana: It's not good for maintaining sort of species diversity. It can have impacts on the whole aquatic ecosystem.

MERI DEMAROIS: University of Montana associate professor of wildlife biology Lisa Eby uses the example of lake trout that were illegally dumped into Yellowstone Lake in the nineties. The new fish ate the native cutthroat trout. Yellowstone Park managers discovered a precipitous drop in the number of spawning native cutthroats from 18,000 in 1998 to just 241 in 2008.

LISA EBY: The fact that the cutthroat populations are very low now, that they don't move upstream to spawn, it's changed the distribution of osprey and other fish-eating birds. It's changed the distribution of how and where grizzly bears can feed in the system. So, certainly, you can have a lot of effects of just a single introduction.

BRUCE FARLING: This, in my view, is one of the most serious problems we have in the state of Montana right now from a fisheries perspective, and how fisheries relate to our economy.


MERI DEMAROIS: According to Farling, recreational angling in Montana generates about $300 million per year. Anglers spend about $40 million annually on gear.

BRUCE FARLING: There's more anglers per capita in Montana than any other state in the country. I mean, it's what we do here.

MERI DEMAROIS: Farling and Montana Trout Unlimited are hoping a $10,000 reward will snag some of these culprits. They would also like to see stiffer penalties, because, oftentimes, the damage is permanent.

PAT SAFFEL, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks: You got to be really lucky to get it early enough to do anything about it. And quite often, by the time we learn about it, it's too late.

MERI DEMAROIS: Fish, Wildlife and Parks Regional Fisheries manager Pat Saffel says they have been doing all they can to prevent illegal introductions, including boat check stations to make sure people aren't bringing in any invasive organisms, and educating the public about the issue.

Eby says there are ways to try and get rid of invasive species.

LISA EBY: There's a lot of eradication, whether it's chemical or mechanical or physical removal of fish, but it's always very difficult.

MERI DEMAROIS: It's not just Montana and its trout, though. Eby says invasive species of all kinds are a very large problem across the globe, whether the introduction is accidental or on purpose.

LISA EBY: So, I would argue, from disease, to mussels, to fish, to plants, it's something that every state in every country is dealing with.

BRUCE FARLING: We have looked at a little bit what is occurring in other places. And it's a really hard thing to get a handle on, and everybody is essentially scrambling the way we are here.

MERI DEMAROIS: Farling believes it's important to look for solutions, so the fishing tradition can continue to be passed down from one generation to another.

BRUCE FARLING: They show up one day and those trout that they caught from when they were kids have been eaten, or, you know, some other species that they have always had expectations would be there are gone because of essentially vandalism in a lot of way. People are doing it illegally.

CAREY SCHMIDT: You know, it makes me sad. You know, obviously, I would like to, you know, share experiences, you know, with my kids. And having those shared experiences talking about trout, it's important. I want them to be able to go to some of the places that I have fished.

MERI DEMAROIS: This has been Meri DeMarois reporting for the "PBS NewsHour" and Montana PBS.