The Idaho Fish and Game Department (IF&G) and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) planned to conduct a lake trout research project on Bear Lake in early June. This project became very controversial among anglers and others in the Bear Lake Valley who felt fish in the lake would be harmed and lake trout in particular would be killed and their fishing of trout in the lake would be compromised by the project.
Lake trout have a long history in Bear Lake. The species has been in the lake for over 100 years. Balancing the number of predators, like lake trout, requires frequent monitoring and evaluation. In an effort to better control the lake trout population, the UDWR began stocking sterile lake trout in Bear Lake in the early 2000s.
UDWR purports that the purpose of this project was not to suppress the lake trout population in Bear Lake but to do research on the fish to assess the effects of 20 years of stocking sterile lake trout regarding the size distribution, age, and fertility of the lake trout population. Basically they say it was to check on the progress toward the management goal of having a near sterile population of lake trout in the lake.
Bryce Nielson, a retired fisheries biologist and a Bear Lake Project Leader from 1973 to 2003, has the background to see what this would do to the fish in Bear Lake. He said, “I know this plan will not work.” He felt this project was being done solely as a cover to complete the main goal of gillnetting and transferring 400 large, sterile lake tout out of Bear Lake to Stanley Lake in Idaho to “give the local fishermen there something to catch.” He was the first to present what was happening to the anglers of Bear Lake, and he began a public investigation into the project.
Kyle Lyngar and Dillon Rich, who felt they were a good representation of the average Bear Lake angler, and after looking into the project and speaking with IF&G, felt this gillnetting project was unlike any other gillnetting that has been done on Bear Lake. Like Mr. Nielson, they believed this project was being done solely for the purpose of removing and relocating large lake trout to Stanley Lake in Idaho. They feel gillnetting is dangerous for fish and that these fish would not survive. In fact, Mr. Lyngar started a petition that was signed by over 2,500 people in the Bear Lake Valley asking that IF&G and UDWR stop the project.
In Mr. Lyngar’s petition he stated that “gillnetting” is done when a net is stretched for several miles in the lake, fish swim into the net, and the net wraps tightly around the fish’s gills. The fish then flop and thrust in an attempt to escape and often die from exhaustion and lack of oxygen. He said the nets “are not a catch and release tool. They are designed to efficiently catch and kill fish of all species.”
According to Scott Tolentino of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, gillnetting has been practiced on Bear Lake for the last 100 years sampling most of the fish in the lake, with the exception of cisco and sculpin, with great success. He said that gillnetting would only take place for short durations and nets would only be set in short sets during the project.
According to Mr. Tolentino, the survival rate of both lake trout and cutthroat would be as much as 95 percent or more. The intention was to perform biological testing on the trout and then return the fish to the lake as soon as possible.
There is another concern anglers have with gillnetting which is “bycatch.” Bycatch is when other smaller fish are caught in the nets while netting the bigger fish such as Bear Lake’s endemic Bonneville cutthroat or cisco, or maybe whitefish. Many of these “bycatch” species are unique and only found in Bear Lake. The anglers were afraid that if these fish were caught in the nets along with the lake trout they would die within minutes.
However, Mr. Tolentino said that as far as bycatch is concerned the net and mesh size had been carefully calculated so that only large sterile lake trout would be caught in the nets. He said most of the smaller fish, such as cisco and small white fish, would be able to swim through the mesh and escape the nets. Also, when nets are set for only a short time (short soak time) retrieved fish can be “picked out” of the nets alive. He said IF&G and UDWR were committed to short soak times.
This gillnetting project was being done concurrently with another IF&G project that would involve transferring 400 sterile lake trout from Bear Lake to Stanley Lake in Idaho. IF&G said this effort was to reduce the risk to endangered sockeye salmon populations and to provide anglers a lake trout fishery at Stanley Lake. They said lake trout in Stanley Lake are currently reproducing and, therefore, pose a risk to establishing populations in nearby waters The sterilized lake trout from Bear Lake were hoped to quell the issue and it was hoped that if any lake trout escape from Stanley Lake they would be sterile and not be able to reproduce.
IF&G said the 400 sterile trout that would be removed from Bear Lake and transferred to Stanley Lake would represent a very small portion of the estimated lake trout population of Bear Lake. According to them, there would not be population-level consequences or a compromise of the quality of lake trout fishing anglers currently experience in Bear Lake.
When Mr. Lyngar asked Carson Watkins of IF&G how long the trout from Bear Lake would survive in Stanley Lake, Mr. Watkins replied he believed the 400 fish would provide fishing opportunity in Stanley Lake for 10 or more years. The anglers were concerned because Bear Lake trout are used to living in 80- to 100-foot depths of water, whereas Stanley Lake is only an average of 50 feet deep. Stanley Lake also does not provide the same food source for lake trout that Bear Lake provides. However, Mr. Watkins said that lake trout are “pretty tough and would be okay to transfer.”
Mr. Lyngar asked Mr. Watkins if it would be possible to take a smaller sample of 10 to 15 lake trout and put them in Stanley Lake for a period of time as a “pilot test” to see how they would survive.
However, Mr. Watkins said “it would be too expensive at this point in time.” When asked if IF&G have ever transferred lake trout via gillnetting from one lake to another, Mr. Watkins said, “No.”
Mitch Poulsen of the Bear Lake Regional Commission was quite concerned. He said he did not know anything about the project until Mr. Lyngar and Mr. Rich brought it to his attention. This was upsetting since the job of the Regional Commission is to help coordinate efforts across state lines and to protect local resources — mainly Bear Lake. He felt that from his and the other Commission members’ vantage points there is no information out there about the project and they were not invited to give any kind of input. He was hoping they would just slow the project down and have a few public meetings to allow the public to weigh in and give their thoughts.
Mr. Poulsen also felt the project was too undocumented for his level of comfort. From the information he had seen on social media and received from Mr. Lyngar and Mr. Rich, he did feel removal of lake trout from Bear Lake was wrong. The members of the Commission want to protect our local waters and the lake trout as well as the endemic species in the lake, and they want to see it done right.
Around 3 p.m. on Friday, May 13, the News-Examiner received a phone call from Mr. Tolentino informing them that UDWR and IDFG had officially paused the gillnetting project on Bear Lake indefinitely. They had just finished a meeting with anglers and other important people and made the decision that they need to make information regarding the project available to the public and will do so in the next little while.
The petition and questions of those concerned about the project have had an impact. It goes to show that the power of numbers does have an effect. The important thing now is that you and those who are concerned about the resources in Bear Lake keep voicing those concerns, attend any public meetings that may be held in the upcoming months, and keep pushing for knowledge and information regarding this gillnetting project and any other projects having to do with Bear Lake and our valley. Get involved, stay informed, and help make a difference. It does matter.