Seeking native status for walleye

January 19, 2009 5:40:47 AM PST
Walleye enthusiasts want the Montana Legislature to fully embrace the fish, but some find their proposal hard to swallow.

A bill up for a state Senate hearing this week calls on legislators to declare walleye, with big eyeballs and meat that is easily separated from bone, a native of Montana even though scientists widely say the fish was transplanted to the state.

"We firmly believe that walleye were here all the time," said Bob Gilbert, executive director and lobbyist for Walleyes Unlimited of Montana. The family fishing organization influenced the bill and will feed legislators fried walleye on the eve of Thursday's hearing.

Designating walleye a Montana native would be like legislating that the sun rises in the west, says Trout Unlimited, a national conservation group.

"We're baffled that they are trying to suspend natural history," said Bruce Farling, Trout Unlimited's Montana executive.

The walleye is a native of the Mississippi River and the Missouri River drainages, according to the Division of Fish and Wildlife in Minnesota, where the walleye is the state fish and the town of Baudette features a 40-foot, 2.5-ton statue of Willie the Walleye.

"I don't think there are very many serious scientists who think it could have been native to Montana," said Duane Chapman, president of the Introduced Fish Section in the American Fisheries Society, a leading organization of fisheries professionals.

Walleye "have been moved around an awful lot through illegal stocking," Chapman said from Columbia, Mo. The fish is found widely in the United States.

Walleye, which eat trout and the prey of trout, are also classified as a native in North Dakota. The Missouri River flows across the North Dakota-Montana line and Walleye Unlimited's Gilbert said he believes the fish traveled here in that water.

"The fish don't understand that there's a boundary," he said.

Some of the conclusions that walleye are nonnative rely on records indicating the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06 did not find walleye in the territory that would become Montana, Gilbert said. It is possible the expedition caught walleye but mistook them for their cousin the sauger, or that the party was unable to catch walleye, he said.

"I'm not going to say trout are dumb, but trout are easy to catch," he said. "Walleye are not easy to catch. It's nothing to go a couple of days without ever getting a bite."

Farling of Trout Unlimited said native fish are "what was indigenous before Europeans showed up, and it wasn't walleye." The harm in passing the bill lies in "legislating erroneous science," he said.

But Gilbert, a former legislator who fishes for walleye in northeastern Montana's Fort Peck Lake, said passage would help balance "the old Montana mind-set that if it isn't a trout, it isn't anything."