Are Rainbow Trout Native to Montana? A Management Challenge

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Mystery man fishes at Montana's Glacier Park lake, with trees and a waterfall nearby.

Among Montana’s robust fishing opportunities, rainbow trout are the number one ranked game fish in Montana. So it is natural to ask if they are naticontroversy throughout western states. ve to this beautiful state.

Scientists believe rainbow trout are native to the Kootenai River in Montana’s northwest corner. All other rainbows are non-native and were introduced.

This raises many questions about rainbow trout’s prevalence. Their overwhelming presence also raises concerns about the impact on native trout populations. 

How Did Rainbow Trout Get To Montana?

The Fish and Wildlife Service introduced rainbow trout to Montana in the late 1880s. Effective farming and logistic techniques encouraged planting rainbows in rivers. Soon, an intricate, systemic stocking plan developed.

These efforts promoted sport fishing and recreation. The popularity of rainbow trout spread as this game fish gave anglers a challenge and a fight. Today, rainbows are in all 50 states and 87 different countries.

In Montana, rainbow trout are in lakes and rivers throughout. However, state wildlife management stocks them in secluded alpine lakes to limit their spread.

Are Rainbow Trout Invasive to Montana?

Spreading rainbow trout makes them invasive and causes controversy throughout western states

Rainbow trout have a higher tolerance for adverse conditions. This allows them to replace fragile species, such as cutthroat and bull trout. 

Even in fisheries with an appropriate environment, crossbreeding still threatens native cutthroats. As rainbows and cutthroats mate, they produce a cutbow trout. As a result, the genetic integrity and purity of cutthroats diminishes.

State and local agencies plan to remove rainbows from streams to preserve native trout populations. Though the idea is simple, not everyone likes it. Some fishermen and tourists of Montana are happy with any catch. But purists hope to keep and promote the natural integrity of their home species.

There are similar efforts with different species in other states. In Wisconsin, signage encourages harvesting brown trout to restore brook trout numbers. In my experience, managing resources is the only way to preserve native trout. 

Which Trout Are Native to Montana?

Native trout of Montana include cutthroat, grayling, and bull trout (though this is actually a char). Many Montanans are very concerned about these species, and I don’t blame them. Their numbers have been declining since the introduction of non-native species.

All other species of trout in Montana were stocked at one point or another. These stockers include brown, rainbow, brook, and golden trout.

Today, Montana’s trout fishing industry relies on stocked fish to keep up with demand. While some companies in the sector want bigger and better trout, traditionalists hope to preserve their native quarry.

Many people prefer management over eradication since removing non-natives seems impossible. As a result, Montana’s game management must balance tourism with native preservation.

All things considered, Montana does a fair job of creating this balance. In my experience, there is ample opportunity for isolated natives or easy to access wild populations. Whether you hike into the backcountry or fish a tailwater, fishing in Montana will be a success.

David holding a beautiful cutthroat trout in Montana’s backcountry.
David holding a beautiful cutthroat trout in Montana’s backcountry

Related Questions

Which States Have Native Rainbow Trout?

Rainbow trout are native to the Pacific Northwest, from California to Alaska. But, like all other native trout species, their populations are in decline and becoming increasingly rare. 

Are Rainbow Trout Native To Yellowstone?

Unfortunately, rainbows are not native to Yellowstone, which has consequences. Like many other places with planted rainbows, crossbreeds deplete the purity of native cutthroats. And though they’re fun to catch, cutbows are spreading throughout the western United States.

David fishing near Yellowstone. Is it a cutthroat or cutbow? You be the judge!
David fishing near Yellowstone. Is it a cutthroat or cutbow? You be the judge!

Are Rainbow Trout Native to Glacier National Park?

Rainbow trout are not indigenous to Glacier National Park. Like many other species, they were introduced after the 1880s.

Final Thoughts

Aside from an isolated strain from a single river, rainbow trout are not native to Montana. Unfortunately, the prevalence of rainbows has sparked controversy in this world-class fishery. Today, the state must balance genetic purity with sustainable fishing.

The purist in me roots for the native population. But the realist in me says, “I can’t wait to go back to Montana to catch more fish!”

Either way, if anglers and outdoorsmen hope to sustain any fishing opportunities, conservation and management will need to be part of the equation.

David Linsmeyer Avatar


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