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Montana FWP and MSU Announce Four-Pronged Approach to Investigate Historic Trout Declines

Fly Fisherman News Briefs for July 11, 2023, including news from Louisiana, California, Georgia, Oregon, Maryland, and more from Montana and beyond.

Montana FWP and MSU Announce Four-Pronged Approach to Investigate Historic Trout Declines

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, in partnership with Montana State University researchers, recently announced four new initiatives on top of the recent implementation of emergency regulations on these rivers and a recent meeting with locals about the trout declines in southwest Montana. (Photo courtesy Wade Fellin/Big Hole Lodge/SaveWildTrout.org)

With runoff nearly complete, hatches happening, and trade shows—next week’s ICAST gathering in Orlando with its renewed fly-fishing emphasis and the AFFTA Confluence event in Salt Lake City in September—getting ready to show off new gear, it’s time to review the recent fly-fishing-related news in the latest Fly Fisherman News Briefs:

Fish Wildlife and Parks and Montana State University Collaborate on "Four-Pronged" Approach to Trout Declines

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) has initiated a series of research projects in response to the declining trout populations in the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby rivers. Partnering with Montana State University, FWP has adopted a comprehensive approach, consisting of three primary studies and an increased focus on fish health monitoring.

The first study, referred to as the "Fish Mortality Study," aims to evaluate the factors influencing trout survival in the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby rivers, along with including the Madison River in such research. Adult fish will be tagged to examine the impacts of various elements such as water flows, temperatures, angling activities, and disease prevalence. This study will also assess the effectiveness of adaptive management plans proposed for the three main rivers.

The second study, known as the "Juvenile Fish Study," will concentrate on enhancing our understanding of trout recruitment and the contributions of tributary spawning areas to the overall trout populations in the mainstem of the Big Hole. By utilizing otolith microchemistry, researchers will examine fish movements, age, and geographical origins of juvenile fish.

A "Fish Health Study" will be conducted to evaluate the extent of disease impact on fish populations in the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby rivers. This investigation will include testing for novel pathogens and exploring more efficient methods of routine fish sampling for disease detection in the future.

FWP also announced a new web portal, sickfish.mt.gov, where the public can report fish-health information.

These four initiatives come on top of FWP’s recent implementation of emergency regulations on these rivers and a recent meeting with locals about the situation.

“Monitoring and responding appropriately to these declines are top agency priorities for FWP,” officials said in a press release.

A recent Montana Standard article added that the non-profit Western Rivers Conservancy purchased a 317-acre ranch in the surrounding mountains which it plans to transfer to U.S. Forest Service ownership. The ranch has two small streams which, though nominal, will now be fully available to boost late-season flows on the upper Big Hole.




Fly Fisherman magazine digital editor Joshua Bergan and editor/publisher Ross Purnell have reported extensively on this threat to one of the world's most important wild-trout resources, its threat to Montana's fly fishing economy, and what solutions may exist.

Stay tuned at flyfisherman.com as we continue to report on this developing story.

Louisiana DWF Decides in Favor of Stricter Redfish Regs

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDFW) Commission adopted a Notice of Intent (NOI) to adjust redfish harvest regulations in favor of a more timely recovery at a meeting on July 6. The Commission decided on a 4-2 vote to adjust the slot limit from the existing 16-27 inches to 18-24 inches. The recommended harvest limit also shifted from 5 fish to 3, with zero fish allowed over the slot and no special limits for guides or charters.

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A large redfish held over the side of a boat prior to release.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Commission recently adopted a Notice of Intent to adjust redfish harvest regulations in favor of a more timely recovery. (Photo courtesy of Costa Sunglasses)

Guides and anglers from around Louisiana reportedly showed up in force for the meeting to advocate for these stricter regulations for the imperiled drum population. Their influence apparently swayed the Commission to adopt stricter rules than many anglers expected.

“The Louisiana guide community gave LDWF and the Commission the political will to push back against the groups that have controlled that area for quite some time,” said a blog post on the American Saltwater Guides Association’s (ASGA) website. “It was an amazing thing to watch. We couldn’t be more proud of the courageous guides willing to speak up for their fisheries.”

Recent Louisiana redfish stock assessments have indicated drastic population declines–well over a 50-percent loss in the past decade-plus.

“The red drum stock is experiencing overfishing resulting in an escapement rate below the 30 percent minimum limit, leading to a declining biomass,” said a press release from the LDFW. “To increase the escapement rate and avoid the stock biomass declining to an overfished condition, management changes are necessary.”

The adoption of an NOI is the first of many steps in promulgating a final rule, which can take between 90 days and one year. Click here for the full text of the NOI.

For further information on Louisiana redfish, visit the ASGA website here.

Train Derailment Cleanup Continues on the Yellowstone

After last year's catastrophic flooding on the Yellowstone River, the iconic trout stream is in the news again following a June 24 train derailment and collapse of a bridge over the river near Columbus, Montana. This section is marginal trout habitat, and roughly is where the river naturally starts to transition to a warm-water fishery, but is nonetheless a vital part of the river’s ecosystem.

The wreckage of a train derailment and collapsed bridge on Montana's Yellowstone River.
Some 16 train cars carrying molten sulphur and hot asphalt derailed, with several of those falling into Montana's Yellowstone River. (Photo courtesy of the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Department)

Some 16 train cars carrying molten sulphur and hot asphalt derailed, with several of those falling into the river. Montana Department of Environmental Quality tested the water along waterways and treatment facilities in Yellowstone and Stillwater Counties the following day and “found no negative impacts” according to David Stamey, the chief of emergency services in Stillwater County. The EPA estimates that upwards of half a million pounds of asphalt could have escaped into the river, and nearly 35,000 pounds of the asphalt material had been recovered by late in the day on July 7, according to news reports.

A public hearing following the derailment, in which the response team reportedly called the spill “a nuisance” and “an irritant,” reportedly angered some locals, several of whom had found backeddies and side channels drenched in asphalt. This, combined with memories of the 2011 Exxon pipeline spill in the Yellowstone, has raised the level of cynicism among locals about the company’s and the government’s responses.

“When you read about this derailment and hear our government officials and industry representatives speak about it, you should maintain healthy skepticism of what you are hearing,” Billings-area rancher and local advocate Alexis Bonogofsky said in a Facebook post. “It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just people doing what they are told to do by people who have no skin in the game.”

Impacts on fish and biota are not yet known and likely won’t be for some time. Asphalt spills are relatively rare in rivers, so minimal research has been done on the outcomes of such incidents.

Asphalt covering an area of rocks and shoreline on the lower Yellowstone River in Montana. A woman walking toward the asphalt.
"The reality," according to Bonogofsky, "is that they keep saying the impacts are minimal but they don’t actually know what the longer term impacts are. Any asphalt they don’t remove will degrade and breakup into the environment over time." (Alexis Bonogofsky photo)

“The reality is that they keep saying the impacts are minimal but they don’t actually know what the longer term impacts are,” Bonogofsky added. “Any asphalt they don’t remove will degrade and breakup into the environment over time.”

You can read her full post here.

Columbia River Faces Record Low Summer Steelhead Run

The news is bad from the Pacific Northwest where pre-season forecasts for summer steelhead migrating upstream of Bonneville Dam this spring and summer are dismal.

According to David Moskowitz's report for The Conservation Angler, this year's run from April 1 through Oct. 31 is forecast to be fewer than 68,000 adult fish, both wild stock and hatchery fish. That's the lowest pre-season forecast ever recorded, including last year's previous low.

The news gets even worse according to Moskowitz since "...the number of wild steelhead predicted to pass over Bonneville Dam in 2023 is less than 21,000 fish, for the entire Columbia and Snake River Basin."

Moskowitz does note that forecast accuracy can be off, wildly variable in fact, in light of the 2021 pre-season forecast at nearly 100,000 steelhead when reality brought only about 70,000 wild and hatchery adults past the dam. He also notes that the 2022 Columbia River Return was predicted to be about 100,000 total steelhead, and nearly 124,000 total steelhead passed by Bonneville Dam.

But what is most troubling perhaps is that wild fish totaled nearly 30,000 adults last year, but as much as 15 percent of these unmarked steelhead aren't wild, but in fact are unclipped hatchery-origin fish. With many others being feral hatchery fish–resulting from hatchery X hatchery or hatchery x wild mating reproduction according to Moskowitz’s story–the end result is to further depress natural steelhead reproduction.

He notes that this 2023 wild steelhead forecast demands an open and careful review of the regulatory scheme in place this year.

Cali Yuba River “Fishway” Announced

Officials at the state, federal and local levels have announced a $60 million “fishway” aimed at boosting survival rates for salmon and sturgeon in California’s Yuba River.

The plan to build a fishway channel—a workaround aquatic bypass at the DaGuerre Point Dam, in Marysville, will reportedly follow the original river bed, allowing spring-run chinook salmon, green sturgeon, steelhead, and lamprey to access 10 to 12 miles of critical spawning habitat upstream. The plan was recently announced by California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials.

A digital rendering of a Yuba River fish passage project.
Officials announced a $60 million aquatic bypass at the DaGuerre Point Dam in Marysville, California, allowing spring-run chinook salmon, steelhead, and more to access 10 to 12 miles of critical spawning habitat upstream. (Courtesy of the California's Governor's Office)

According to Los Angeles Times writer Alex Wigglesworth, California will pick up half of the project’s cost, with that money coming from $100 million in previously allocated salmon restoration funds.

“The fishway at DaGuerre Point will be an unprecedented action to restore habitat and contribute to the recovery of threatened species by providing unobstructed passage to habitat that’s been incredibly challenging for them to access,” Willie Whittlesey, general manager of the Yuba Water Agency, said.

The planned fishway would seek to correct more than a century of trouble with the river and its fish. All of that began in the early 1900s when the federal government constructed a submerged concrete dam to contain mining debris and sediment. In the 1950s, California installed two new fish ladders, but they are antiquated, in disrepair, and block upstream travel by lamprey and sturgeon.

While some lauded the fishway as a step forward, others weren’t happy and complained about the process that led to this announcement. Others said that it wasn’t what was necessary, the complete removal of the dam.

“These types of closed-door processes alongside a coalition of active participants are really concerning,” said Meghan Quinn, associate director of river restoration and dam removal at American Rivers, in the Times story. “It makes you wonder what the future of restoration work looks like.”

Chris Shutes, executive director of the California Sportfishing Alliance was critical of a deal said to be cut between some of the interested parties, one he alleges was outside the working group.

“In exchange for commitments by the Yuba Water Agency on fish passage, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is effectively retracting its flow proposal that its staff proposed in the re-licensing and agreeing to the flow proposal proposed by Yuba Water Agency,” Shutes told the Times. “That to me is the most objectionable part of the arrangement.”

River Herring Using Maryland Habitat Following Dam Removal

If there was any doubt that dam removal can help a species access key habitat, recent NOAA news indicates that there’s good news on that front.

Maryland's Bloede Dam - a two-level roller dam - with two people walking along boardwalks at the bottom.
A recent study found that both blueback herring and alewives are using habitat reopened by the removal of the Bloede Dam on Maryland's Patapsco River. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science have been looking for environmental DNA, or eDNA, to detect the presence of river herring in the Patapsco River near Baltimore where the dam was removed in 2018.

The resulting study shows good news that the anadromous river herring, both blueback herring and alewives, are using the reopened habitat.

“In the 4 years prior to the dam removal, no river herring eDNA was detected upstream of the Bloede Dam site,” the NOAA report indicated. “After its removal, eDNA from both species was detected in the reopened habitat.”

Also noted is that biologists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources recorded two adult river herring—one alewife and one blueback herring—upstream of the Bloede Dam site in 2021.

Groups Suing to Stop Montana Grayling Project

A lawsuit filed in late June is seeking to stop a water-diversion pipeline in southwest Montana at a wilderness area within Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

While the project announced on June 5 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) reportedly sought to increase dissolved oxygen in a shallow lake where remnant Arctic grayling winter in the wilderness area, the plaintiffs in the case said it was a blatant violation of the Wilderness Act and a flawed attempt to help.

A scenic photo of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge showing a pond in the foreground and mountains in the background.
A project that sought to increase dissolved oxygen in a shallow lake where Arctic grayling winter in the wilderness area is a blatant violation of the Wilderness Act, according to plaintiffs in a lawsuit about the project. (Photo courtesy public-domain-image.com)

The suit seeks to stop the proposed diversion pipeline, which will send water from Shambow Pond to Upper Red Rock Lake. Plaintiffs seeking to stop the effort–which comes after a February draft environmental assessment brought opposition–including the Gallatin Wildlife Association, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and others.

With the dwindling population of Arctic grayling justifying potentially justifying the intrusion into the wilderness area, a newspaper story by Duncan Adams indicated that there was support for some sort of project variation from the likes of Montana Trout Unlimited, the Montana Wildlife Federation, the Ruby Valley Conservation District, the Big Hole River Foundation, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and the Big Hole Watershed Committee.

The lawsuit reportedly cites the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defined a wilderness area  as a location where "...the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man." In the crosshairs of this lawsuit is some 32,000-acres lying within the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which Congress designated as the Red Rock Lakes Wilderness in 1976.

Also in the spotlight is the grayling population. According to Adams, "...the grayling in the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge are “adfluvial,” or lake dwelling, as opposed to the river dwelling, or “fluvial,” grayling that survive in the Big Hole River as the last such population in the Lower 48."

Georgia DNR Seeks Public Comment on Reg Amendment

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is seeking input from constituents concerning possible amendments to rules governing delayed harvest streams.

The proposed amendment would make changes to size limits, fishing methods, and catch-and-release fishing, respectively. The DNR notes that any changes to existing rules "...are responsive to customer desires related to trout fishing."

The amendment documents can be reviewed here.

Members of the public may comment on the proposed changes through submitted written statements, which will be accepted through the end of business on July 28, 2023. Comment may also be made on the agency's website, by e-mail, or through written comments that are mailed in.

To submit written comments, either electronically or by regular mail, e-mail FM.comments@dnr.ga.gov or mail to the attention of Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division, 2067 U.S. Highway 278, S.E., Social Circle, Georgia 30025.

The Georgia Board of Natural Resources will consider the proposed rule and comments at its Aug. 22, 2023 meeting in Atlanta.

ODFW Welcomes Public Input on Update to Fish Passage Barrier Prioritization List

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) is asking for public comment on the updating of the Statewide Fish Passage Barrier Prioritization List, a comprehensive assessment that takes place every five years.

This time around, ODFW aims to incorporate new variables that consider the potential impacts of climate change on fish habitats. Changing seasonal flow patterns and temperature variations will be factored into the prioritization methods, ensuring that future restoration efforts are resilient and adaptive.

A worker standing in a culvert that is held by a crane on Oregon's Little Eagle Creek.
ODFW aims to incorporate the potential impacts of climate change in its upcoming update to the Statewide Fish Passage Barrier Prioritization List. (Photo courtesy of ODFW)

“By integrating (public) knowledge on how the effects of climate change will impact habitat used by native migratory fish, we hope to enhance our ability to restore fish passage and protect the health of Oregon's aquatic ecosystems,” ODFW Fish Screens and Passage Coordinator Katherine Nordholm said.

Interested individuals and groups can provide their thoughts and suggestions via email at Fish.Passage@ODFW.Oregon.Gov or by mail to the ODFW Fish Passage Program at 4034 Fairview Industrial Drive SE, Salem, Oregon 97302. The initial public comment period will remain open until July 31.

A presentation with detailed information on previous prioritization lists and methods is available at https://www.dfw.state.or.us/fish/passage/inventories.asp.


Lynn Burkhead is a Senior Digital Editor with Outdoor Sportsman Group.

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