By Web Master, 5-16-12
There's quite the fisheries experiment right in our backyard. In Flathead Lake, and the upstream watershed, we're experimenting on a massive scale, adding species and adopting a variety of management techniques. I'm rather curious to see how it's going to work out.
The complication is this is an experiment without a control. That means that in the remaining decades I expect to be on this Earth, the "conclusion" of our Flathead fisheries experiment probably won't be reached.
You know what I mean by a control. Think back to one of those science experiments you conducted back in your grade school days. I remember one from summer school. I planted pea seeds in a number of pots and placed them in the backyard. One of the pots was watered every day, another every other. One of the pots was watered once a week. As the peas grew I diligently recorded their progress.
I also had one pot that was left unwatered and the peas had to rely on whatever rain fell during the four-week experiment. Since I grew up in the arid Mediterranean climate of Southern California, these peas didn't get any water and failed to sprout.
That unwatered pot served as my control. It told me what would happen to peas if left unirrigated. While it wasn't a "wildlife" experiment, having peas in an unwatered pot to serve as a control helped me demonstrate what would happen if I had done nothing.
The watered peas were examples of "management." While not a perfect analogy, those pots were something like what's been going on in Flathead Lake. We've added species: perch, Lake Superior whitefish, Mackinaw trout, mysis shrimp. We've also changed the environment, adding houses, dams, roads and logging to the watershed. And we've also changed fishing regulations, protecting native bull and cutthroat trout while opening up a virtual bounty on Macks. The "Mack Days" trout-a-thons are in a sense an attempt to create a commercial-like fishing operation.
Why is creating a "commercial-like" fishing operation important? It gets to the heart of the ethos of modern fishing and hunting in the U.S., of which one of the guiding narratives is that "sport" hunting has never resulted in the elimination or extinction of a game species. What about the virtual elimination of elk and buffalo across most of their native range by the end of the 19th century, you ask? The answer is that the hunting that drove those populations to the brink wasn't the pursuit of game by individuals to fulfill their own personal needs, all under the careful stewardship of professional game managers, ie. "sport" hunting. Rather it was hunting driven by market forces, whether that market be in buffalo robes, canned elk tongue or wild waterfowl for the restaurant menu.
While it may be anathema to many in the hunting community, the dramatic success of 20th century wildlife management in the United States – management that led to the greatest restoration of wildlife in the history of the planet – is really nothing more than garden-variety socialism. It was the free market that created the wildlife barrens of North America a century ago. Hunters and anglers got together and used the tools of government to fix that.
This is why the "commercial-like" characteristic of Mack Days is so important. Ideally, once Mack populations are driven down to some more sustainable level that will allow bull and cutthroat populations to rebound, the Mack Days harvest can be turned off. With a true commercial operation that would be impossible. A commercial operation would have an incentive to keep fishing until it was no longer economically viable, as happened with elk and buffalo.
Which brings me back to my unwatered pea pot. To have a control for the experiment going on in Flathead Lake we'd need a similar watershed, with a similar mix of introduced and native species. While we are conducting our "commercial-like" experiment, we'd do nothing in the control watershed and compare results.
But that's not plausible. Biologists can look at other watersheds with similar characteristics and tease out possible correlations. Flathead Lake is a giant fisheries experiment being conducted without a control, as it has been since we first started mucking around down there. How it's going to turn out is anyone's guess.
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