Biologist: Flathead Lake Likely to Reach Warmest Temps Ever

By BEACON STAFF for the Flathead Beaon

The vast waters of Flathead Lake could reach their warmest temperature on record this summer.

That was one of the many takeaway messages to surface during the recent Flathead Lakers annual meeting at Glacier Camp Lodge. The annual gathering attracted more than 170 people, according to organizers, and featured presentations by a former Glacier National Park superintendent and managers from the Flathead Lake Biological Station.

Jack Stanford, director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station, delivered his annual State of the Lake report during the evening. Stanford, who has worked at the station in Yellow Bay since the 1970s, reported that Flathead Lake is in a “very delicate balance” related to nutrient inputs.

It doesn’t take much additional nitrogen and phosphorus for the bays, or the entire lake, to turn green with algae, he said, and that’s why it’s important to prevent runoff polluted with nutrients from reaching the lake.

He said a modeling effort by the Environmental Protection Agency, using data from the biological station, would provide information useful for better understanding the nutrient loading process.

Flathead Lake Biological Station Boat Departs From the Research Center

A Flathead Lake Biological Station boat departs from the research center to take visitors out to one of the automated buoys on Flathead Lake that record water quality and meteorological conditions. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Stanford also believes the lake will reach the warmest temperature ever recorded this summer. Temperature is key to creating conditions in which algae can thrive. Yet water clarity remains good this year, he said. The research data show there is currently no trend in primary productivity, or the ability of the lake to grow algae, but nitrogen levels in the lake are increasing, which could foretell problems in the future.

Stanford also discussed the series of changes in the plants and animals living in the lake, called a trophic cascade, caused by Mysis shrimp, which reached the lake in 1981. One result has been a huge increase in numbers of lake trout that jeopardize native bull trout. Stanford said a food web model, using information already available, is needed to better understand the implications of various management scenarios. He is encouraging the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and the Bonneville Power Administration to fund such a model.

“The very worst thing that could happen now is to get some other alien species in the lake,” Stanford said. “I’m really worried about the two mussel species, which would cause another trophic cascade.”

Former Glacier Park Superintendent Chas Cartwright echoed Stanford during his keynote presentation at the Lakers’ meeting.

“Aquatic invasive species is still the issue that makes me lose sleep at night,” he said.

An accidental introduction of zebra or quagga mussels into Flathead Lake or other nearby waters “would be a game changer,” he said.

During his tenure at the park, Cartwright instituted a boat inspection program to hopefully prevent introductions of harmful aquatic invasive species. Cartwright said he thinks prevention is possible and he was encouraged by the increase in efforts being made both at the state level and in the Flathead.

“But it isn’t enough,” he said. “We need a funding mechanism we can count on.”

Cartwright, who has returned as the chair of the Flathead Basin Commission, discussed several topics of concern involving Glacier Park, such as the North Fork coal mining saga, fish and wildlife management and fires. He emphasized the importance of good science and values-based discussions in order to make the best decisions on difficult issues to protect natural resources.

The Flathead Lakers, a nonprofit organization with more than 1,500 members, delivered its annual stewardship award to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and The Nature Conservancy. The Lakers presented the award to both organizations for their significant contribution to protecting Flathead Lake and its watershed by raising $10 million needed to cover the costs of withdrawing mineral rights in the North Fork and allow British Columbia to reimburse the companies that had incurred exploration expenses under permits previously granted.