Non-native bass detected in the Bitterroot River
John Hundley was fishing on a Sunday afternoon this summer. A couple miles upstream, the first confirmed smallmouth bass in the Bitterroot River had been caught in July. That’s a worrying discovery for some anglers like Hundley.
"It's a symptom, right, of a changing world, so the concerns could be much deeper than just the bass in the river. It means water’s warmer, because bass are in warmer water. It means, you know, obviously, climate change is happening," Hundley said.
Smallmouth bass aren’t native to Montana. The state introduced them for sportfishing in the 1900s. As rivers get warmer during the summers, they become more suitable for the bass, which prey on young native species like trout and whitefish. But until recently, the Bitterroot was known to be bass-free.
"We weren't anticipating it as soon as it happened," says Pat Saffel, the fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks in the Missoula region. It’s still not clear how many bass there are in the Bitterroot, meaning there may be time to stave them off from establishing a population.
"Your one chance is early on, and it may not be a very good one. But it's your one chance. So, you give it a go, if you're, if you have it."
Saffel says angler cooperation is critical. FWP issued an order this summer that requires anglers to keep and report any smallmouth that they catch. So far, Saffel and his team have confirmed four of the fish in the river through angler reports and are still working to gather more information. Anglers like Wes Swaffer are happy to cooperate, but he questions whether everyone feels the same way about helping.
"I doubt that all anglers are unanimously understanding of the issue and willing to do something about it. Smallmouth are in places because they’re a sport fish, so, you know."
It’s impossible to undo the introduction of smallmouth bass into Montana. But FWP still holds hope that the Bitterroot drainage can remain bass-free for a little while longer.