Protecting native wildlife to maintain ecological and economic stability: westslope cutthroat trout

This blog post originally appeared on our Rockies Expeditions blog on August 29th. Our 2013 Spine of the Rockies Expedition is investigating Large Landscape Conservation through methods of visual and social media while connecting to the Rocky Mountain Region’s strong ties to outdoor recreation and wild spaces. For more on the expedition, visit:

Cutthroat trout throughout the greater Rockies region are a vital resource.  These species not only offer recreational opportunities for humans, but they also play a fundamental role in a dynamic ecosystem.  North to south, the spine of the continent provides suitable habitat from Alaska to New Mexico for many trout species.  Over time, specific habitat area and geographic isolation has created a series of subsets within the larger species.  In Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, there are mainly three species: Greenback cutthroat, Yellowstone cutthroat, and Westslope cutthroat.  These native species offer the opportunity for management strategies that can benefit both economic and environmental interests.

The Flathead River boasts a healthy westslope cutthroat trout fishery
The Flathead River boasts a healthy westslope cutthroat trout fishery


Wyoming boasts the cutthroat trout as its state fish, with Colorado claiming the greenback cutthroat, and Montana the westslope cutthroat.  These trout are a symbol of pride for all the people of the Rocky mountain west.  Economic interests place value on the species as a resource that can be sustainably harvested.  Environmentalist values support conservation of the fish for ecosystem integrity.  People that live in the greater Rocky mountain region recognize these benefits of having trout around.  Such universal support between environmental and economic interests has brought both sides together to find methods to best manage these native species.

The North Fork of the Flathead River is a humbling place.  Filled with the highest densities of grizzlies in the lower 48, this wilderness has tremendous value.  The river valley corridor provides, for all native wildlife, high quality habitat and the ability to move through large landscapes.  This core area includes some of the healthiest trout habitat in the greater Rockies region.  The subspecies that inhabits this particular watershed corridor is the westslope cutthroat trout.

These westslope cutthroat trout are used by biologists as an indicator species for the larger ecosystem.  Indicator species are a specific species whose presence can indicate whether the ecosystem is functioning in a healthy manner. This is because indicator species require specific habitat conditions.  Trout need clear, cold water that is clean and connected.  This means that they need a network of rivers, streams and creeks that are all easily accessed and navigable.  When these essential habitat conditions are met, the ecosystem is capable of supporting trout and a variety of other native species.  Therefore the fact that the Flathead has a healthy westslope cutthroat fishery indicates the ecological integrity of the landscape.

The fishing in the Flathead River is nothing short of world class.  The healthy westslope cutthroat population even supports a bull trout run.  Bull trout are a threatened species that are a highly desirable game fish.  They feed on small cutthroat trout and migrate every year, often across the US-Canada border.  This unique predator-prey relationship between the two trout species could not exist without a large connected corridor for these fish to travel.

Fly Fisherman target native fish and wilderness destinations
Fly Fisherman target native fish and wilderness destinations 


The combination of an extremely productive cutthroat population and a bull trout run draws fly-fisherman from all over the world.  In 2006, The University of Montana conducted a study in which it was estimated, “out-of-state visitors spent $34.2 million just on outfitted fishing trips, which doesn’t include money spent on hotels or gear.”  While this statistic is estimated, for the entire state of Montana, it proves that these fish support a massive industry.  Regulated by a permit system, the state generates revenue that in turn can be funneled into conservation of the native species.

According to Mike Fiebig, “The North Fork of the Flathead River holds its full contingent of native flora and fauna, its a critical source of clear, cold, high quality water for native fish species like bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.  Just an incredibly beautiful, wild, remote place sitting at the headwaters of the Columbia.  It is a very special place to a lot of people: hunters, anglers, folks floating the river, hikers.”

While the North Fork of the Flathead has many conservation values, management of trout species has been done in a way that creates income.  By managing for a large intact landscape, the governing agencies has made these wilderness areas target locations for recreationists.  Fly-fishing anglers from all over the world target premier landscape locations that host native fish.  This fishing tourism generates a renewable source of economic productivity for local communities. With proper management, Flathead native trout fisheries should be able to be sustained for economic gains as well as larger ecosystem integrity.

The protection of trout habitat in turn also protects major drainage basins.  These waterways are key corridors for all native wildlife in the greater area.  The recognition of the economic value of native trout is two fold.  Protection helps to maintain the health of the larger Crown of the Continent ecosystem, while providing much needed income for state agencies.  This system creates a positive feedback loop in which conservation raises state revenue, and in turn allows for greater conservation initiatives to be undertaken.

Pat Hughes is a Field Researcher with the State of the Rockies Project 

Photos by Halsey Landon

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