Conservation Groups Stop Massive “Poison and Plant” Project on the North Fork of the Blackfoot River in Scapegoat Wilderness Area

It’s rare, but sometimes when conservationists point out problems with decisions by federal agencies the government backs down. That’s just what happened when the Forest Service recently pulled its prior decision approving a plan by Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to use rotenone to poison out 67 miles of streams and lakes in the North Fork of the Blackfoot River so it could be replanted with Westslope Cutthroat Trout.

To put it mildly, there were some rather serious issues with the project. First of all, it required at least 67 helicopter flights to haul the boats, motors, generators, poison dispersers and camps into the Scapegoat Wilderness Area where all motorized use is prohibited.

Then there was the very legitimate concern that the river and lakes to be poisoned are directly upstream from federally-designated Critical Habitat for bull trout. Had there been an accident, such as the one on Cherry Creek that allowed the poison to bypass the neutralization station and kill 1,000 – 1,500 trout downstream all the way to the Madison River, Montana’s fisheries

agency would be responsible for killing bull trout – which have been listed as “threatened” on the Endangered Species List for more than 25 years.

And finally, poisoning flowing streams severely alters biodiversity and causes a broad loss of taxa and species from those ecosystems since rotenone kills not only the target trout, but also the aquatic insects and gilled amphibians in the water.  As former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioner Victor Workman said when he unsuccessfully tried to stop Montana’s use of rotenone, his concern about potential environmental harm from rotenone dispersed in lakes “increased when a Fish, Wildlife and Parks official told him that ‘viewing of this project is not for the faint of heart. It looks like a war zone. If it’s alive, it’s dead.’”

Wilderness Watch, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Task Force, and Conservation Congress had already raised the issues during the public review and comment period, but bureaucratic inertia pushed the project forward. Once the Decision Notice approved the project, the conservation groups had no options left except to file a lawsuit in federal court and ramp up efforts to alert the public to the potential problems.

Facing significant legal and public opposition, the Forest Service reconsidered and issued a Memo reversing the decision, noting: “The project decision included approving a Pesticide Use Proposal for the use of rotenone in the Scapegoat Wilderness and authorization of the following activities normally prohibited in wilderness: use of generators, boat motors, and motorized pumps to disperse rotenone; use of helicopters to transport equipment, chemicals, and fish; and development of spike camps and a radio repeater.”

This would have been one of the largest poison and plant projects in the West. But as past history has shown, it’s likely that repeated poisoning over many years would be required to assure complete annihilation of the existing fish which were, ironically, planted by the same agency that now wanted to poison them.

While restoring native species is a worthwhile goal, focusing on one species of trout to the detriment of countless other organisms, ecosystem structure, and biodiversity as a whole can impair the fisheries and wildlife of the Scapegoat Wilderness for a long time. Given our current climate change extremes, there is simply no guarantee that the “cold and clean” water these native species require will even exist in the future since many of Montana’s trout streams have already been closed down due to low flows and lethal temperatures for coldwater species.

We are thankful for everyone who helped us protect the crystal clear waters of the North Fork of the Blackfoot River in the Scapegoat Wilderness and greatly appreciate that Supervisor Upton withdrew her previous decision for this project. It showed that sometimes federal agencies do listen to the people – and if they did so earlier in the process we’d all be better off.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.