The troubled bull trout may grab the headlines these days, but its smaller native cousin, the westslope cutthroat, may not be faring much better.
Some worry the cutthroat may go from being part of the custom and culture of Montana to a footnote in the state’s history books.
“Cutthroat are worse off than bull trout in a lot of ways,” said Bruce Farling, spokesman for Montana Trout Unlimited.
Under the shadow of the Endangered Species Act, government and corporate officials fret over the fate of the bull trout. Yet a recent report by Flathead National Forest biologist Pat Van Eimeren indicates westslope cutthroat remain in just 19 percent of their historic range. A similar 1984 study found the fish in 27 percent of their historic range.
Van Eimeren said exact percentages are difficult to figure, since historic records are often incomplete.
The Flathead River system is a stronghold for the fish, he said.
Abundant cutthroat trout helped feed the Lewis and Clark expedition. But by the 1960s, biologists and anglers worried about the future of the fish. Even before the Endangered Species Act of 1974, cutthroats were on a federal list of troubled species.
Since 1974, certain subspecies of the cutthroat, like the gila and greenback, were listed as endangered or threatened. Montana’s two subspecies, the westslope and Yellowstone, are not listed.
Somewhat misnamed, westslope cutthroat are found on both sides of the Continental Divide.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ruled that listing bull trout as threatened is warranted, but says it’s a low priority.
“We suspect all the factors that are affecting bull trout are hitting cutthroat as well,” said Jim Vashro, regional fisheries manager for the state.
Cutthroats can’t stand major increases in silt or water temperature that can follow logging, mining or grazing. Imported sport fish, such as rainbow and brook trout, crossbreed with or out-compete cutthroats. Often, one impact compounds the other, he said.
One reason bull trout have received more attention than cutthroat is that bull trout populations are more easily tabulated.
Bull trout spawn in fall, and biologists count nests when water is clear and low. Cutthroats spawn in spring, when high and roily water obscures spawning beds. Biologists are left with trickier census methods, such as checking anglers’ creels and electrofishing.
Cutthroat trout have two survival advantages over bull trout, Vashro said.
Their shorter life span could allow populations to bounce back better than the long-lived bull trout. And cutthroat are more prolific spawners.
In response to perceived declines, Montana has reduced limits on cutthroat trout, down to two fish in Flathead Lake.
Also the Forest Service, the state and the federal Bureau of Reclamation are planning to replace culverts along Hungry Horse Reservoir this summer. Biologists think that will restore several miles of cutthroat streams, now cut off.
For years, the state has tried to “swamp out” exotic fish in alpine lakes by stocking loads of westslope cutthroat. Vashro said that seems to be working better than expected.
Plum Creek Timber, the Forest Service, the state fish and game department and other agencies are trying to address bull trout problems in a panel organized by Gov. Marc Racicot.
Van Eimeren said if the panel were to address other species that have needs similar to bull trout, it might save bigger headaches later.
While anglers remain among the cutthroat’s staunchest supporters, Vashro said some anglers prefer sportier species, such as rainbow trout, which can displace the natives.
“This is a custom-and-culture issue for me,” said Trout Unlimited’s Farling.
“I have been fortunate enough to be able to catch native bulls and cutts, and I want to make sure future generations have the same opportunities.”