Large Lakes Limnology Project Overview

The Large Lakes Limnology project encompasses the three largest lakes in the Flathead River watershed. These lakes include Swan Lake, Whitefish Lake, and Flathead Lake.


Limnology of Flathead Lake

FLBS Investigators:
Bonnie K. Ellis, Jack A. Stanford and Jim A. Craft
Charles Levitan, Sierra College, Nevada, Dale Chess, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Craig Stafford, The University of Montana
Funded by:
Montana Department of Environmental Quality, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Flathead Lake Biological Station

Various aspects of the limnology of Flathead Lake have been described in numerous technical reports and journal publications. However, we are currently in the process of synthesizing the 20+ year database into at least 3 major publications. The synthesis will include the following:

  • Long-term patterns of water, light and heat flux,
  • Food web change mediated by the introduction of non-native biota, and
  • Determinants of the long-term pattern in primary productivity.

More information will be available shortly. For a brief synopsis of the limnology of Flathead Lake, see the included PDF file (, 23 kB) with excerpts from a book chapter by Stanford and Ellis (2003).


Related Publications

Stanford, J. A. and B. K. Ellis. 2003. Natural and cultural influences on ecosystems processes in the Flathead River Basin (Montana, British Columbia). Pp 269-284. IN: Baron, J. S. (Editors). Rocky Mountain Futures: An Ecological Perspective. Island Press, Covelo, California, USA. 325 pp.

Spencer, C. N. and B. K. Ellis.  1998.  Role of nutrients and zooplankton in regulation of phytoplankton in Flathead Lake (Montana, USA), a large oligotrophic lake.  Freshwater Biology 39(4): 755-763.

Stanford, J. A., B. K. Ellis, J. A. Craft and G. C. Poole.  1997.  Water quality data and analyses to aid in the development of revised water quality targets for Flathead Lake, Montana.  Open File Report 142-97.  Flathead Lake Biological Station, The University of Montana, Polson.  Prepared for the Flathead Basin Commission, Kalispell and Helena, Montana.  154 pp. + appendices.

Stanford, J. A. and J. V. Ward.  1992.  Management of aquatic resources in large catchments:  Recognizing interactions between ecosystem connectivity and environmental disturbance, pp. 91-124. IN:  Naiman, R. J. (ed.), Watershed Management.  Springer-Verlag, New York.

Dodds, W. K., B. K. Ellis and J. C. Priscu. 1991. Zooplankton induced decrease in inorganic phosphorus uptake by plankton in an oligotrophic lake. Hydrobiologia 211: 253-259.

Dodds, W. K., J. C. Priscu and B. K. Ellis. 1991.  Seasonal uptake and regeneration of inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus in a large oligotrophic lake: size-fractionation and antibiotic treatment.  Journal of Plankton Research 13(6): 1339-1358.

Spencer, C. N. and B. K. Ellis.  1990.  Co-limitation by phosphorus and nitrogen, and effects of zooplankton mortality, on phytoplankton in Flathead Lake, Montana, U.S.A.  Verh. Internat. Verein. Limnol. 24: 206-209.

Ellis, B. K. and J. A. Stanford.  1982.  Comparative photoheterotrophy, chemoheterotrophy and photolithotrophy in a eutrophic reservoir and an oligotrophic lake.  Limnology and Oceanography 27(3): 440-454



Limnology of Whitefish Lake

Understanding the ecology of large oligotrophic lakes and the interactions between the physical, chemical and biological components of each lake is very difficult due to the ever-changing pieces of the puzzle. To better understand the long-term responses of the Flathead Lake ecosystem to environmental change, it is beneficial to investigate other large lakes in the area including Whitefish and Swan Lakes.

We are fortunate that the city of Whitefish is also interested in the ecology of Whitefish Lake. The Whitefish Sewer and Water District, a public entity devoted to “maintaining and/or enhancing water quality in the District”, has funded the Flathead Lake Biological Station on three occasions to assess the trophic status of Whitefish Lake. Through the use of our research they can make informed management decisions for future development and restoration in the area based on the response by Whitefish Lake to past development in the area. This is especially important now because the State of Montana (Department of Environmental Quality) is required by the Environmental Protection Agency to establish recommended Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for Whitefish Lake. The findings from the current study will be critical to the development of the TMDL for Whitefish Lake.

Swan Lake

A synopsis of studies on Swan Lake will be available shortly.