Forty Years of Montana's Wild Trout Policy

The unheralded 40th anniversary of Montana adopting a wild trout management policy may surprise some Montanans.  Perhaps it's even more surprising to Montanans that there is an anniversary of wild trout management, at all.  But the anniversary is noteworthy for several reasons.  Historically, the adoption of wild trout management is a key policy in a chain of fisheries management decisions dating back to the Civil War.  Ecologically, wild trout management set the stage for a revolution in how Montanans treated our rivers and streams.  And finally, economically, wild trout management helped create Montana's economic bread and butter: clean air, clean, cold water, healthy rivers, and wild places and wildlife.


First, a little history lesson.  Late-comers to fisheries management might be surprised to know that trout management began during the Civil War.  That's right, the first Montana Territorial Legislature convened in a chilly Bannack backroom in December 1864.  The legislators took on issues like deciding whether to choose sides in the Civil War, where to develop new public infrastructure, and to pass a fishing regulation.  Public Law 407 prohibited the taking of trout with anything other than rod or pole. 


Fast forward 110 years, and we meet E. Richard "Dick" Vincent, a young fisheries biologist with the Montana Fish and Game who discovered that stocking fish in rivers and streams was counterproductive.  He found that stocking hatchery-reared trout in the Madison River actually suppressed wild fish populations and was an expensive route to lower quality trout fishing.  Dick banded together with early TU members and local business owners, including an innkeeper and a now-famous rod-maker, to convince a segment of the angling public and his agency supervisors to implement this bold wild trout policy.  The policy was simple, if not profound, simply stating that the state would no longer stock fish in waters capable of supporting wild populations. 


This decision is now the envy of anglers and fish biologists the world over.


Second, wild trout management may be one of the greatest ecological success stories never told.  The wild trout management policy diverted attention from stocking fish to compensate for habitat destruction caused by pollution, bulldozing, and dewatering streams. The wild trout policy focused attention on protecting and restoring degraded rivers and streams to provide the cool, clean water and healthy streams that trout require.  While trout and anglers were  primary beneficiaries of wild trout,  a long list of species like mink, otter, ospreys, eagles, bears and kingfishers enjoy healthy habitats and a consistent food source thanks to wild trout management.  Humans other than fishermen also benefit from the recreational and economic riches of healthy rivers and streams.  Floaters, innkeepers, rod and wader makers, restaurants and chambers of commerce each enjoy the bounty that Montana's trout fishing provides.


Which brings us to the third gift of wild trout--economic growth.  Every year, our healthy rivers and streams generate several hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity for Montana.  For context, the Madison River trout fishery, the home of wild trout management, annually generates more economic activity than the entire skiing industry in Montana.  Wild trout policy, coupled with a chain of protective laws like the Clean Water Act, 310 and the Stream Protection Act,  have each contributed to creating Montana's economic engine, which is still fueled by clean water, clear air, healthy rivers and streams and abundant fish and wildlife.


So the next time your representative or candidate for Congress and the statehouse foams at the mouth about "job-killing environmental regulations," make sure to tell him or her the tale of wild trout management and the hundreds of millions of dollars generated annually from our protective regulations.   In fact, our fish, wildlife, rivers and lakes aren't just our economic bread and butter--they are the honey that makes our lives here so sweet.  


Pat Byorth is director of TU's Montana Water Project. He lives in Bozeman.



said on Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Pat, thanks for sharing. The history here is fascinating. Having lived in West Yellowstone, I've seen first-hand (and benefited from) the incredible economic benefits of managing for wild trout.

said on Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Excellent piece, Pat!  Thanks for making this fantastic success story more visable, especially to folks in other states where hatcheries still rule.  After reading 'An Entirely Synthetic Fish', my understanding of the issue grew dramatically and my mindset shifted.  I float/fished the Smith River in MT last week and saw first-hand the benefits of this type of policy.  Keep it up!!! 

said on Friday, June 20th, 2014

Think of all those hatchery dollars invested in wild and native fisheries. Very important perspective here. Thanks.



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