Montana Public Radio

Rare Native Fish Found In Northwest Montana Lakes

May 26, 2021

A rare native fish species has been discovered for the first time in two northwest Montana lakes. The discovery is part of state fish and wildlife biologists’ efforts to understand more about the pygmy whitefish.

The pygmy whitefish, which is silvery, white and the size of a sardine, is native to Montana and is generally also found in British Columbia, Washington state and the Great Lakes region of the U.S.

Pygmy whitefish.
Credit Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Fisheries Biologist Sam Bourret says the fish are known to live in Flathead, Whitefish and other popular lakes, but Bourret and his colleagues recently went looking for them in less-surveyed bodies of water. 

“We did in fact find those fish, pygmy whitefish, for the first time in Tally Lake and Big Salmon Lake so far.”

Bourret says little is known about where the species lives in Montana because the fish are small-bodied and live in deeper waters, meaning they don’t typically show up in FWP survey nets looking for game fish.

The pygmy whitefish isn’t endangered, but is a “species of concern.” Bourret says learning more about its distribution in Montana is important.

“For instance if that species faces a stressor, such as climate change or some other human-induced problem, and then if you don’t know the fish is there in the first place, you wouldn’t know if it was gone.”

He says this is the first step in understanding more about the elusive fish species, which could help with future conservation efforts.