Sunday, December 22, 2013

Homewater Trout

With the calling of homewaters come thoughts of a rod bent and a trout fighting at the far end. When I envision my homewaters the trout that has taken my fly is a Yellowstone cutthroat trout, native to the waters of the Big Horn Basin and its surrounding mountains.  While the namesake Big Horn River runs nearby and I've fished various stretches of it over the years, I've never considered the Big Horn River one of my homewaters.  Instead that very personal label goes to the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone, the Northfork of the Shoshone, and Tensleep Creek.  The Yellowstone cutthroat trout is native to each of these waters including the Big Horn River. Nevertheless, today it is less likely that you'll catch a Yellowstone cutthroat trout than a rainbow, brook, or brown trout on any one of these waters.
Tensleep Creek in July

The wild vs. native debate will continue to challenge the conservation community and fishery managers well into the future, but in some ways homewaters help to bridge this gap.  Wild and stocked non-natives inhabit the mainstem and many of the tributaries of my homewaters, but this doesn't detract from the enjoyment I get every time I  return home to fish these waters.  Instead, catching a fiesty rainbow or a brightly colored brook trout on my homewaters reminds me to seek out opportunities to conserve natives and expand their range where possible.  There exists neither the biological nor the technical ability to return native Yellowstone cutthroat trout to much of my homewaters, and if it were possible the political challenges of such a project would then be immense. Rather, time on my homewaters provides me a sense of clarity when it comes to supporting native trout conservation and reinvigorates my spirit of conservation in a way that eludes me on new waters where the focus is on reading the water, finding trout, and otherwise taking in a new landscape.  Ultimately, homewaters and their trout provide inspiration that stretches beyond the physical limits of those waters and beyond the species therein, wild or native.
Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone in November

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Protecting the Northfork of the Flathead River

Fly Fishing and Protecting the NorthFork of the Flathead River

While working on my doctoral dissertation research I had the opportunity to live near and fish the Flathead River system of northwest Montana and southeast British Columbia. The three branches, North, Middle, and South Forks of the Flathead River all drain to the massive Flathead Lake south of Kalispell, Montana before eventually joining the Columbia River.  Flathead Lake is one of the 300 largest lakes in the world and is the largest fresh water body west of the Mississippi River.

The three branches and Flathead Lake itself each have their own fly fishing personalities. Native Westslope cutthroat trout and the bull trout, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999 (after having first been listed as endangered in 1998), are native to the Flathead basin. Introduced non-natives including rainbow, brook, brown, and lake trout are also found within these Rocky Mountain waters.

NorthFork of the Flathead River

The NorthFork of the Flathead River is quite unique, as I learned while fly fishing its waters for nearly a year and a half.  The NorthFork is a fairly large river, but it is oligotrophic, which means the river is nutrient poor and doesn't produce the large size and numbers of trout like rivers of comparable size such as the Yellowstone River.  The waters are also exceptionally cold reducing the window for optimum foraging and growth, but don't let that fool you into thinking that the NorthFork is anything but a fly fishers paradise!  Since 1976 portions of all three forks of the Flathead River have been designated as wild and scenic.  The NorthFork is designated as wild and scenic from the Canadian border south to its confluence with the MiddleFork.
The author fly fishing the NorthFork of the Flathead

Without hyperbole I can tell you that the NorthFork of the Flathead possess some of the most magnificent beauty of any river I've ever fished- and this comes from a guy who grew-up on the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park.  The NorthFork River itself serves as the western boundary of Glacier National Park after flowing south from its rugged headwaters in southeastern British Columbia.  Glancing up from the water reveals jagged mountain peaks towering in all directions.
Looking from the western shore of the Northfork of the Flathead River
into Glacier National Park

Moving you gaze downslope from the alpine peaks you are treated to unbroken vistas of sub-alpine forests and meadows down to the floodplain corridor.  Depending on where you decide to fish you can see wonderful examples of the ecological processes that take place following wildfire.  The near mythical wildfires of 1910 left their mark on the forests surrounding the NorthFork and in some areas signs have been erected to draw your attention to the regeneration that has taken place since the conflagration.  Evidence of more recent fires can be seen from the water as open stands contain burned snags intermixed with surviving or new evergreens and deciduous trees.
A burned and recovering riparian stand on the eastern bank
of the NorthFork of the Flathead

The NorthFork offers a superb chance to catch native trout in their home waters, something that is becoming ever more difficult as habitat loss and competition with non-natives pushes the West's native trout into smaller and smaller remnants of their historic range. Rainbow trout threaten the NorthFork's Westslope cutthroat as they interbreed producing hybrids that dilute the cutthroat's genetic variation and adaptations while also undermining the species' fitness (Muhlfeld et al., 2009).  Scientists and natural resource managers have recognized that continued expansion of non-natives into native species strongholds is a continuing conservation concern throughout the Flathead basin.

Protecting the NorthFork of the Flathead basin

Expansion of introduced non-natives are not the only threat to the relatively pristine waters of the NorthFork of the Flathead River and the terrestrial ecosystem that it drains.  Coal mining and other forms of industrial natural resource extraction have long been a looming threat to the largely wilderness quality ecosystem.  

On February 18th, 2010 Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Premier Gordon Campbell of British Columbia signed an agreement to ban coal mining, coal-bed methane extraction, and oil and gas exploration in the Northfork of the Flathead River basin. Achieving this historic protection of the Northfork basin was neither quick nor pretty. While British Columbia has agreed to forgo energy development in the basin, federal legislation on the U.S. side of the border has been proposed but has stalled a number of times in the U.S. Congress.  Montana's congressional delegation has pushed for the United States to reciprocate and protect the U.S. portion of the Northfork basin, but have yet to meet with success.

The ability of local sportsmen and women to contribute to large, even international level, positive conservation outcomes must not be under appreciated.  The Northfork River basin will maintain its wilderness characteristic, its intact biodiversity, and unblemished water quality in part through the determination and pride fly fishers take in maintaining the environment and waters they love. A diverse set of conservation minded fly fishers and other sportsment in conjunction with many other stakeholders will continue to push for the United States to pass legislation to protect the U.S. portion of the Northfork basin.

I sincerely hope you get the opportunity to explore some of the wild and scenic waters and wilderness of the Northfork of the Flathead River- the opportunity to catch native Westslope cutthroat trout in such a pristine environment is unparalleled.  And while you're at it don't miss Glacier National Park and its Canadian counterpart Waterton Lakes National Park.

Sources cited:
Muhlfeld, C. C., S. T. Kalinowski, T. E. McMahon, M. L. Taper, S. Painter, R. F. Leary, and F. W. Allendorf. 2009. Hybridization rapidly reduces fitness of a native trout in the wild. Biology Letters 5:328-331.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pebble Mine and the Precautionary Principle

Bristol Bay

Bristol Bay and it's tributaries are a fly fishers paradise.  Located in southwestern Alaska the ecosystem is rich in both salmon and minerals.  The Environmental Protection agency recently completed an assessment of potential mining impacts for Bristol Bay noting that the ecosystem contains the worlds largest sockeye salmon population (approximately 46% of the world's annual global abundance) in addition to populations the four additional pacific salmon species.  The watershed is also home to a number of other salmonid species including rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, Arctic char, and lake trout to name a few.  As the EPA's report notes, the entire population of each of these species in Bristol Bay are entirely wild. And, as you might imagine in an undeveloped ecosystem such as this, the terrestrial biodiversity is intact and healthy consisting of 40 mammal and 190 bird species. The state of Alaska has designated Bristol Bay and the surrounding region as open for the exploration and development of minerals.

Pebble deposit

The Pebble mine project was originally conceived as a partnership between mining giant Anglo American and mining newcomer Northern Dynasty Minerals, until Anglo American withdrew from the partnership in mid-September of 2013.  As partners the two companies sought to mine copper and molybdenum measured in billions of pounds and gold measured in the millions of ounces in addition to numerous other minerals contained within the deposit.  Because the deposits are considered low grade the EPA believes that fully mining the mineral deposits will result in the removal of 11 billion tons of ore- a staggering amount that would result in the mine being the largest open pit mine in North America.

Pebble mine

The location of the proposed Pebble mine sits atop the headwaters of two of the six rivers that drain to Bristol Bay, the Nuchagak and Kvichak . Together, the Kuchagak and Kvichak drain approximately 50% of the Bristol Bay watershed.  The EPA's impact assessment scenarios anticipate that the open pit mine, mining spoils, and tailing ponds could span anywhere from 3.7-28.3 square miles, which would straddle the headwaters of the two rivers.

In addition to being located in a nearly completely undeveloped ecosystem there are two overwhelming factors that concern scientists and conservationists with regard to the proposed Pebble mine. The first is a nearly 700 foot high earthen dam that may stretch for miles, the second are tailing ponds that may need to be maintained in perpetuity in order to treat acidic waste water from the mined tailings and the weathering of exposed ore. Concern over the enormous earthen dam, beyond its massive size, is that Bristol Bay, like much of Alaska, lies within a seismically active area.  A 9.2 magnitude earthquake struck the Anchorage, Alaska area in 1964, which has given rise to questions about the ability of a dam of this magnitude to survive such an earthquake.  Given the size of the dam it is germane to ask what magnitude earthquake a structure such of this can sustain and maintain its integrity at all?

The precautionary principle

Under the precautionary principle its is the responsibility of the proponent of a project to prove that a project will not cause environmental harm.  This is counter to the traditional approach to environmental damage where the burden of proof falls on the general public to demonstrate that harm has or will come from a project.  The proposed Pebble mine appears to violate the precautionary principle in two very dramatic instances.  The first being the ability of the massive earthen dam to survive in a seismically active region; the second is the ability of the mining company (now only Northern Dynasty Minerals) to provide proof of its ability to treat acidic water from mined ore in perpetuity in order to maintain Bristol Bay's water quality.  Requiring Northern Dynasty to provide evidence of their ability to maintain unblemished environmental quality in Bristol Bay in perpetuity may seem quixotic on its face.  But the purpose of the precautionary principle is to protect environmental health and given the enormous ecological resource of Bristol Bay, Pebble mine appears to be the perfect project with which to ensure that the precautionary principle is upheld.

Recognizing the potential danger the proposed Pebble mine demonstrates to Bristol Bay, Trout Unlimited has initiated the  Save Bristol Bay campaign in order to oppose the mine's construction. Trout Unlimited has developed a broad coalition of supporters opposed to the proposed mine that include conservation organizations, Native Alaskans, local communities, commercial and recreational salmon fisherman, chefs, and fine jewelry companies such as Tiffany & Company.

The proposed massive Pebble mine at Bristol Bay serves an example of the need to exercise the precautionary principle.  If Northern Dynasty chooses to continue forward with the permitting process for the Pebble mine it would be in the best interest of the public as well as regulatory agencies to require Northern Dynasty Minerals to provide adequate evidence that no environmental harm will come as a result of the mine, as required under the precautionary principle.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Of Fly Fishing and Federal Furloughs

As I sit here preparing this second post for the newly created Fly Fishing and Conservation blog I'm spending my first full day at home as a result of the current government shutdown.  As an environmental scientist in the employ of the federal government I, like hundreds of thousands of my civil servant peers and colleagues, am sitting home rather working.  While I would love nothing more than to spend a day such as this out on the water, I thought this would be an appropriate opportunity to better acquaint myself with the world of blogging while providing you an opportunity to see how I came to the sport of fly fishing and my passion for conservation.

The Big Horn Basin, generally speaking, stretches from the eastern edge of the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains along the spine of the Rockies to the western edge of the Big Horn mountains.Growing up in the high desert Big Horn Basin I spent a great deal of time fishing the streams of the Big Horn mountains- this summer was no exception.  Over the years I've had the opportunity to fish the upper elevations of the main stem and tributaries to the Paintrock, Tensleep, and Tongue rivers of Wyoming.  Each finds its headwaters in the seasonal snowpack of the Big Horn Mountains.

Each of the below pictures is from the waters of the Big Horn mountains.

My passion for conservation is rooted in my love for the sport of fly fishing.  From an early age I have had the opportunity to claim as my homewaters a number of the streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs across the Big Horn Basin as well as the Big Horn and Absaroka-Beartooth mountain ranges.  The photos above are a small selection of some of the waters I claim as my homewaters.  My passion for fly fishing and conservation ultimately springs from a desire to protect my homewaters, but has grown with my education on the broader challenges associated with cold water fishery conservation.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Welcome to the Fly Fishing & Conservation Blog

Welcome to the Fly Fishing & Conservation blog!

The intent of this blog is to serve as a platform to discuss conservation issues through the lens of the sport of fly fishing.  My goal is to combine my passion for fly fishing and conservation with my background in natural resource and environmental science in order to open a broader discussion about conservation issues and challenges, particularly as it applies to cold water fisheries.

I will bring together scientific research, mainstream media, and new media to provide you a broad view of the issues that impact the sport of fly fishing and conservation of trout and their habitat.  In addition to broadly available forms of news, data, and information, I will provide a review of germane ecological and social science research along with citation so that you may peruse the work I will cite for the post.  While a great many of the posts will directly discuss issues and impacts related to trout and cold water habitat conservation, I will also provide posts on issues such as ecosystem-based management and climate change.  The purpose is to be as expansive as possible rather than losing sight of the forest through the trees.  It is always important when on the stream to take a moment to look up from the water and appreciate all the components of the ecosystem that come together as a whole to provide us with the opportunity to pursue the sport of fly fishing.

A little about me-
I am a Wyoming native who grew up fishing the waters flowing from the Absaroka-Beartooth and Big Horn mountain ranges.  While wetting a fly on a mountain stream is my utmost fly fishing passion, growing up I spent a considerable amount of time fishing larger rivers like the Big Horn and Yellowstone.

Today I'm an environmental scientist working for the federal government in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  I am a member of a team charged with managing and conserving natural resources on Department of the Army lands in southern Colorado.  Although I'm slowly being introduced to new waters here in Colorado, I return to my home waters in Wyoming whenever possible.

I look forward to our future conversations!
Bradley Johnson, Ph.D.