Montana nonprofit is fighting to protect native fish on this historic reservation

She says her family lineage can be traced back as far as Chief Looking Glass in the 1800s, so Benson and generations of her family have witnessed firsthand the declining numbers of native species in the area. “Our native species are disappearing everywhere. In fish, animals, plants and insects. We need to take a stand,” said Benson.

The native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout are two species that are experiencing a decline in population. One of the main reasons for that is the introduction of lake trout to the area.

“I remember when I was a young child, people fishing out on the lake, my dad included. They were fishing for the native fish, and I actually remember the day they caught their first lake trout. And what a shock it was to them. After that they were catching them all the time … and that slowly led to their quitting fishing.”

Benson’s family weren’t the only ones who noticed once-abundant species becoming displaced by invasive fish. She says a tribal elder spoke to her about how it used to be a common sight to see a range of westslope cutthroat trout at the lake’s surface feeding. That is something you don’t see these days in Flathead Lake.

Heritage species

Flathead Lake is one of the largest lakes in the western United States, and the native fish here are especially important to the Indigenous people who have called this land home for thousands of years.

Benson says that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes were hunter-gatherers. They followed the native fish throughout the lake’s river system in order to catch them.

“The tribes have named some places after bull trout, so it has very significant cultural meaning — to the tribal elders especially.”

“Cutthroat and bull trout have been in the Flathead Lake and the river system for thousands of years, back to the ice age and beyond. Lake trout have been in the lake for a little over 100 years. The combination of mysis shrimp and lake trout have created a very detrimental condition for the native trout,” Barry Hansen, a fisheries biologist at Native Fish Keepers, told CNN.

The group is trying to restore the native trout and stop lake trout from taking over. Since a large portion of Flathead Lake is part of the Flathead Indian Reservation, Native Fish Keepers is owned and operated by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Its mission is to reduce the invasive species and restore native ones, including the bull trout and westslope cutthroat trouts.

The way group members are working toward that goal is by taking a cue from their hunter-gatherer ancestors — they’re fishing.

Targeted fishing

Flathead Lake covers over 200 square miles and is up to 380 feet deep, so Hansen says knowing where the different species migrate is key. “Bull trout are more localized in particular areas. And that helps us to target lake trout without having a significant impact on bull trout.”

Native Fish Keepers employs 16 tribal members who head out almost daily during the non-winter months to extract the lake trout. Nets are placed where the lake trout dwell to help minimize the amount of native fish caught.

It’s an expensive to program to run, so to help offset the costs, Native Fish Keepers set up a nonprofit organization to process and sell the fresh-caught lake trout.

Benson, who is the fishery specialist that oversees the processing of the caught fish, says the operation processes about 20,000 pounds of fish a year. The fish are then sold to local markets and restaurants — with all the money going back into supporting the operation for the future.

Besides striving to help preserve the native species that mean so much to the Indigenous people of the Flathead Reservation, Native Fish Keepers also tries to help the broader communities around them. The group’s employees are almost entirely tribal members, and they donate thousands of pounds of fish to local food banks every year.

Benson and the Native Fish Keepers are hoping the work they’re doing today will have a lasting impact.

“If we don’t do something now, future generations won’t see these fish,” she said.

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