How is it that we’ve come to value certain species over others? Why do we call some animals and plants bad while we spend millions of dollars to save the good ones?
Fresh off the plane from Alabama more than two decades years ago, I wanted to experience everything in Montana. When a co-worker offered to take me fly-fishing along the Gallatin River, I accepted. I was used to catching red snapper off the back of a boat, using sliced squid and a giant lead weight. When I showed up on the banks of the Gallatin just outside Bozeman with sandals, cut-off shorts, and my spinning rod, Sam was aghast. Sam insisted I use his roommate’s fly-fishing gear. Fine by me.
Sam was patient at first until the fourth time I snagged my line on some knapweed on the bank. We were fishing along the bottom, a technique I now know as nymphing, and I was bored out of my mind. Montana was awesome, but fly fishing was stupid. And then I caught something.
“Keep the line tight. Keep it tight,” Sam yelled as he ran upstream to me. I kept it tight, and Sam scooped up my first-ever Montana fish. He unhooked the fly and chucked the fish far onto the bank. “Dude, what’d you do that for?” I asked.
“It’s a whitefish,” he said. “Trash fish. We’re here to catch rainbows.”
Then I caught three more whitefish. I was happy. But Sam, normally a jovial guy, was pissed, and I didn’t know why. Obviously, some fish are bad, others good. The same goes for plants. Some, like the roses outside my apartment, are good. Others, like that knapweed that kept eating my nymph, are bad. Once I set an anchor in Montana, I started to understand that Sam’s disdain for whitefish is part of a bigger issue in Montana, one that reduces and, in some cases, replaces native species with more agreeable species. In fact, that’s been the case since Easterners set foot in Montana.
When pioneers pushed west, there was a utilitarian mindset: without it, few pioneers likely would have survived. Native game such as elk, deer, and bison were driven to near extinction to feed restaurants, for target practice, and to drive Native Americans off ancestral lands. Predators were eradicated as well. The void was filled with European ideals on how the landscape should look and behave. Cattle replaced bison. Wheat and alfalfa replaced native prairie. Brook, rainbow, and brown trout were stocked in lakes and rivers.
Now, we are dealing with the repercussions, which boils down to finding the proper mixture of native and non-native species. Some non-native species, including many fish and game birds, were introduced. We call them exotic, though sometimes we work to boost their populations. Other species are reviled and labeled as invasive and noxious because they can do serious harm to both the native and non-native species we foster. So how is it we’ve come to value certain species over others? Why do we call some animals and plants bad while we spend millions of dollars to save the good ones?
Good Fish, Bad Fish
In the 19th century, game species, including fish, took a beating, and concern began to grow. In 1865, the Montana territorial legislature passed a law stating the only legal way to take a fish was with a pole, hook, and line—no more nets or dynamite. Soon thereafter, the sale of wild trout meat was outlawed, along with the sale of game animals and birds. In 1892, the Bozeman National Fish Hatchery opened its tanks to start stocking lakes and streams, not with natives like cutthroats or whitefish, but with brook trout, rainbows, and brown trout, all exotic species brought from distant places. All of them are popular with anglers.
Case in point? Rock Creek in western Montana. On any given weekend in July, Rock Creek, just east of Missoula, will be lined with cars, many with out-of-state plates. Fishermen work every pool, hoping to hook a rainbow, which put up much more of a fight than the sluggish whitefish. Seeing a hooked rainbow leap out of the water and dance on its tail is a sight to behold and a common one in most of Montana’s cold water streams.
Since 1889, Montana has stocked nearly every suitable lake and stream with hundreds of millions of hatchery-raised rainbows with brood stock from California. This drew anglers, who pumped millions of dollars into the state’s economy. Montana stopped stocking streams and rivers with rainbows, a species that now thrives on its own, and the state is famous for its “wild” rainbows.
But stocking has also backed some native fish into a corner. Where rainbows have been introduced, and there are few places they haven’t, native cutthroat trout populations have suffered from hybridization and competition.
To make amends, or at least give native fish like westlope cutthroats a fighting chance, managers have taken some arguably extreme measures. In 2007, fisheries managers in northwest Montana looked to the lakes in the Bob Marshall Wilderness that drained into the South Fork Flathead River. There, they choppered in boats, motors, and poison to kill all the fish in the lakes, essentially giving biologists a blank canvas. Then, they re-stocked the lakes with genetically pure, hatchery-raised westslope cutthroats. By all accounts, the project is a success a decade later, with westslopes in the lakes flourishing.
Fisheries managers began a similar project just west of Bozeman in 2003. Cherry Creek, which begins in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, runs mostly through media mogul Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch and eventually drains into the Madison River, was poisoned to kill brook, rainbow, and even Yellowstone cutthroats (a species of concern). The creek was then stocked with genetically pure westslopes. They’re thriving now, too.
It’s hard not to think about Dr. Seuss’ Good Fish, Bad Fish. There are so many fish. Who’s to say which ones are bad, and which ones are good? To make sense of it, I reached out to Tom Reed, author of Blue Lines: A Fishing Life.
He has rolled his passion for fishing into a career with Trout Unlimited. He likes riding his horses, especially when they’re packing out his elk, chasing Hungarian partridge and ringneck pheasants (both non-native game species), and talking conservation. He sees Montana as a place big enough for both native and non-native fish.
“Let’s put native fish in where they belong, and let’s put non-native sportfish where they can thrive,” he says. “Every fish has a place.” He’s caught 16-inch westslopes on hoppers in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and says there’s nothing like it on the planet. As for whitefish, they have a place too. “People just thought of whitefish as so abundant, like bison, that you’d never run out of them,” he says. “That mindset is turning around a bit because there are less of them and because they are a bit of a canary in the coalmine regarding water quality. It’s a cool native fish.”
I ask about those Hungarian partridge and pheasant, game birds prized by shotgun-wielding sportsmen who live to watch their wire-haired pointers work a field. “We tolerate them because they don’t destroy the entire ecosystem,” Reed says. “We like these species because there is a human value there.”
Human value is a clever way to put it. There is value, not to mention an entire economy, built around guiding out-of-staters to rainbows. How about value for the ever-delicious yet non-native walleye? Trash talk this species in eastern Montana at your own risk. Every spring, hunters brave the tick-laden hills in search of an introduced turkey. Add chukar and quail to the list of non-native game birds. My neighbors raise chickens and have a housecat with a sweet tooth for native songbirds. The list goes on. We tolerate these animals because they serve a purpose, and they don’t threaten to take over an entire ecosystem. It’s not lost on me that I, too, am an import. I’m not native, and I’ll never be considered native. I’m a resident. But how about my kids? They were born here.
And then there are species that are downright destructive.
Take zebra mussels, a small native of the Black and Caspian Seas, harmless in their own waters, where birds and fish eat them. But in North American freshwater lakes, discovering zebra mussel larvae is the ecological equivalent of a meth lab popping up in a retirement home. Zebra mussels are “aquatic invasive species,” meaning they “have the potential to damage the economy, environment, recreational opportunities and human health of Montana.” In lakes and reservoirs, zebra mussels spread like mad, attaching themselves to irrigation systems, hydropower facilities, and boat motors. Since their discovery in Montana waters in 2016, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has launched an all-out assault on the mussel, setting up boater check stations, media campaigns, and an extra $2 fee for anglers to help fund prevention efforts. Rainbows we can live with, even embrace. Zebra mussels, no way.
“There’s no function for zebra mussels here,” says Reed. “They are the spotted knapweed of the aquatic world. We should throw everything we’ve got at those things.”
Learn about the first Tribal Wilderness Area in the United States and how their management style is vastly different from the feds just a stone’s throw over an invisible boundary line.
Sweet Knapweed Honey
Ah, yes, knapweed. While in my 20s, my only requirement for taking a job was that it took me outside. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, I was either helping protect native species or keeping non-natives at bay. I measured pebbles in streams that harbor native bull trout. I spliced barbed wire fences to keep cows out of Glacier National Park, where the horseflies (a native species I could live without) were so bad I climbed a tree to eat lunch in relative peace. They found me. And I roasted in the August heat of eastern Montana, hand-pulling knapweed and leafy spurge. It made me itch like mad.
A native of Eurasia, knapweed first made landfall in North America on the west coast in 1883, carried by ships. Since then, it has staked a claim in 47 states, and by 1982, it had shown up in every Montana county. Like zebra mussels, this stuff is nasty.
Knapweed found North America ripe for invasion. It can reach armpit height and is considered invasive because it has the potential to take over entire ecosystems, displacing native plants that game species like to eat, not to mention the loss of forage for non-native cattle. It’s so adept at taking over that it actually emits its own herbicide into the soil, which kills native neighbors. It will bloom before other plants in the spring, generating thousands of seeds, sometimes infesting one acre with up to two million plants. The estimated cost to the livestock industry is in the hundreds of millions.
Knapweed has proven itself a worthy adversary, spreading in the face of herbicides, education campaigns, hand pulling, and predatory insects imported from its home turf. These bugs lay eggs on immature knapweed flower heads. When larvae emerge, they burrow into the flower head to feed on the tissue where seeds are formed. This helps stymie knapweed, but the problem is that deer mice feast on these larvae, and their populations explode. Deer mice carry hantavirus, which can kill people.
If there is one saving grace for knapweed, it does make for some pretty good honey. That helps fuel a multi-million dollar honey industry, which also depends on non-native species. Montana’s 28 species of native bumblebees don’t produce honey. That work is done exclusively by the European honeybee, imported to the States in the 17th Century.
Around Missoula, where I live now, colorful bee boxes are a common sight smack dab in the middle of a field overgrown with knapweed. Of course, knapweed isn’t the only flower buzzing with honeybees; plenty of native wildflowers contribute to the cache. Even the non-native dandelions that dot my yard (I’ve given up) are fodder for honeybees, which now exist in every corner of Montana. Many of Montana’s beekeepers travel to California’s almond fields for the short pollination window. Then they haul their hives up through Washington and Oregon to bring bees to apple, pear, and apricot orchards. Honeybees feed us, and not just with honey, at a time when many native pollinators face all kinds of threats.
Return of the Native
Even with all the non-native animals and plants we’ve come to rely on, there’s a small but growing shift back to the native. In some cases, the shift is fueled by the fear that a native species, such as the greater sage grouse, will be listed under the Endangered Species Act, which can mean land use restrictions and bureaucracy. To keep sage grouse off the list, state and federal agencies, along with non-profit conservation groups and private landowners, have worked together to come up with a viable plan to ensure the bird’s survival, though the plan faces political challenges now.
Private groups are also taking the reins. The American Prairie Reserve in north-eastern Montana hopes to create an American Serengeti on 3.6 million acres of public and private land, restoring bison and black-tailed prairie dogs, prairie birds, and other native species now in decline while welcoming people. To the delight of some but the dismay of others, wolves were returned to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem more than 20 years ago. Native fish populations are being restored at a cost of millions of dollars. Why spend all these resources to go back to the way things were, if only partly?
Fear of the ESA could be one reason, but it’s not the only reason. There’s economics. Tourists visit Montana to see grizzly bears, wolves, and wild places. I also think there’s a little guilt mixed in. We know what once was and what we, as a species, have altered. There’s atonement at play, to some degree, and a values shift.
“Our management follows society’s mores,” says Brad Shepard, who spent nearly 30 years as a fishery biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. “Now, we are looking to work more in concert with nature and help nature sustain itself. In my view, we have the luxury that we can afford to do it [restoration] now. In the past, that wasn’t the case.”
In other words, we can manage for what we want, if we can figure out what that is.
There’s a nostalgia there, but there’s also the reality many of us want to live in a healthy place with functioning ecosystems, game to hunt, and clean waters to fish. And the next time my kids see their line go tight and a whitefish roll sluggishly to the surface, I’ll take the nymph out of its ugly, pouty lips and gently slide it back into the river where it belongs.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Montana Quarterly.