Science Fiction Threatens Lewis & Clark's Fish

Conservationists move to protect once plentiful native trout


Rob Ament, American Wildlands, 406.586.8175


Abigail Dillen, Earthjustice, 406.586.9699


Dr. Chris Frissell, Pacific Rivers Council, 406.883.1503

With the ongoing bicentennial celebration of their famous journey through the Northern Rockies, you can hardly get away from the names “Lewis & Clark.” But you’d be hard-pressed to find the fish named after them — the westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi). Indeed, scientific surveys indicate that the fish, which once ranked as the most widespread native trout in the American West, has been reduced to just a tiny, dwindling fraction of its historic range.

Today, a coalition of conservationists and a prominent angler filed a 60-day notice with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the agency has ignored overwhelming scientific evidence that the fish is heading for extinction. American Wildlands, Western Watersheds Project, the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Clearwater Biodiversity Project and legendary Montana fly fisherman Bud Lilly are asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect westslope cutthroat trout as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act

The Fish and Wildlife Service cited research from several leading scientists in its August 2003 decision not to list the trout as threatened. Now, those very same scientists are saying the Fish and Wildlife Service distorted and misused their work.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s interpretation of the science about trout hybridization is untenable, mystifying, and just plain wrong,” says research biologist Dr. Chris Frissell. Along with fellow scientists Dr. Fred Allendorf of the University of Montana and Nathaniel Hitt of Virginia Tech, Frissell recently wrote the agency to protest its misapplication of their peer-reviewed research to justify its westslope cutthroat trout decision.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service cited our study,” said Frissell, “then bizarrely contradicted or ignored its most obvious and conclusive finding: that hybridization is a progressive threat that will continue to undermine native populations until a sincere and serious effort is made to address the problem.”

In a series of letters to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Frissell and the other scientists repeatedly questioned the Service’s decision to count hybridized fish as pure westslope cutthroat trout based solely on visual similarities. Recent studies, including an article in this month’s issue of Conservation Biology, stress that while hybrids may look similar to pure fish, they behave differently from westslope cutthroat trout and do not share the genetic make-up that has allowed native fish to survive thousands of years of floods, fires, droughts, and disease in the Northern Rockies.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service ranks hybridization as the number one threat facing the species, then turns around and claims that the species is not threatened because there are plenty of streams with hybridized trout in them,” says Rob Ament, executive director of American Wildlands.

“What kind of reasoning is that? That’s not science — that’s science fiction.”

Political science, instead of biological science served as the basis of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision, according to Abigail Dillen, the Earthjustice attorney representing the coalition.

“You know that the Fish and Wildlife Service is making decisions based on politics instead of science when it ignores the leading scientists and actually misuses their work,” says Dillen.

Bud Lilly says he hopes the Fish and Wildlife Service will see past the politics and work to preserve an integral part of the Northern Rockies.

“The westslope cutthroat trout ranks as an important part of our region’s history, culture, economy and ecology,” says Lilly. “Streams and rivers all over the Northern Rockies used to be thick with westslope cutthroat trout when I was a boy. You could catch one every minute.

“But pretty soon, there won’t be any left unless the Fish and Wildlife Service wakes up, smells the coffee, takes a good gulp and gets busy giving this fish the protection it needs as a threatened species.”

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