by Michael Howell
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission on Thursday, August 25, changed the state’s ‘Hoot Owl’ regulations for streams designated as having high value for native Cutthroat trout. The changes made do not affect current restriction criteria in place which pertain to reaches dominated by nonnative salmonid such as Brown, Rainbow and Brook trout. Nor do they change the current restriction criteria concerning critical Bull trout reaches. The changes insert a new criteria for “high value” cutthroat reaches that is triggered after three consecutive days of 66 degrees.
The mainstem of the Bitterroot River has been under Hoot Owl restrictions that closed it to all fishing from 2 p.m. to Midnight since August 2. This closure was triggered when the temperature exceeded 73 degrees Fahrenheit for three consecutive days and fish mortalities have been observed. For critical Bull trout reaches, Hoot Owl restrictions can be applied when the temperature reaches 60 degrees.
Fishing restrictions, such as Hoot Owl restrictions and full closures, are designed to protect fish that become more susceptible to disease and mortality when conditions, such as low flows and high water temperatures, combine with other stressors, including catch-and-release fishing.
According to FWP Region 2 Fisheries Manager Pat Saffel, it was former FWP Bitterroot fisheries biologist Chris Clancy’s “mortality floats” providing data on Cutthroat mortality numbers under the existing Hoot Owl restrictions and follow up work by the current fisheries biologist Jason Lindstrom that really propelled the development of a more sensible trigger point for Cutthroat. He said studies done at Montana State University were examined an, based on an extensive review of studies and laboratory and field work, the acute temperature for Cutthroat was found to be around 68 degrees Fahrenheit and higher. Saffel said that a review of weather temperature history in the Bitterroot showed that a trigger point of 65 degrees would close the river to fishing for far too many days even in the upper Bitterroot with good water flows. He said the agency made a “Goldilocks” sort of decision to set it at 66 degrees because it meant quite a few less restricted days than at 65 degrees and not too many less than at 67 degrees, which was getting too close to the absolute limit.
Saffel said that a lot of Cutthroat fisheries are difficult to access which greatly reduces the fishing pressure, but here on the Bitterroot River access is easy and the fishing pressure is very high.
“Cutthroat trout are very easy to catch, and they need cold water,” said Saffel. “It’s a unique situation and these fish need some sort of protection.” A few streams had Hoot Owl restrictions this summer to protect the Cutthroat populations, in including Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula and Fish Creek near Superior.
Local FWP fisheries biologist Jason Lindstrom said, “The Bitterroot certainly has some high value Cutthroat fisheries.” He said no restrictions based on the new regulation limit will probably be in place before next year. He said actual designation of the reaches that will be affected by the new rule will be determined in the state’s Fish Management Plan. A final draft of the plan is expected by sometime in April of 2023. He said the draft plan does contain a proposal to designate the stretches from Hamilton to the East and West Forks; the West Fork from its mouth to the dam; and the East Fork to Sula as high value Cutthroat reaches.
“But that plan has yet to be approved and will undergo extensive public review in the process,” he said. He said there were no proposals for any Bull trout reaches in the Bitterroot. He said the population was too low density in the river and in other areas are more inaccessible and not highly fished. The changes provide more discretion for biologists to determine deteriorating stream conditions (broadly defined) beyond the temperature and flow thresholds that can contribute to invoking the rule.
The changes also address the problem of “on-off-on again” problems that can occur by providing more discretion to biologists in applying or lifting restrictions to adapt to changing weather or stream conditions. For example, if we are in Hoot Owl and a brief storm technically meets the reopening criteria but there is a return to hot and dry weather in the forecast, biologists can keep the restrictions in place. This could apply to the current situation as a weather storm just broke a long hot dry spell but the forecast calls for a return to 90 degree weather as soon as the storm passes.
FWP Commission members also removed any specific reference to a set date for lifting Hoot Owl restrictions. The existing rule was September 15th; the new rules first proposed moving that to August 31st. However, a last-minute amendment to just remove a specific date was proposed by Commissioner K.C. Walsh and approved 7-0. This means that no matter the time of the year, stream conditions will dictate the implementation of the rule, and there will not be an arbitrary date on the calendar lifting all restrictions and conceivably preventing them from going back on in late fall if the conditions warrant.
“We applaud the Commission for moving forward grounded in science and saving cold water trout streams,” said Clayton Elliot, Government Affairs Director for Montana Trout Unlimited, who lobbied hard for removal of the sunset rule. Elliot said that more and longer periods of hot dry weather are affecting all the rivers and streams in Montana. He said everyone is attempting to address the issues and anglers were going to have to take their hits along with the irrigators.