If you’ve ever ventured into the Yellowstone National Park backcountry with a fly rod in hand, you’ve taken in one of the most unique experiences our sport has to offer.
Think about it. Most “consumptive” activities are forbidden at Yellowstone. You can’t hunt or trap. You can’t gather shed antlers or firewood (at least without a permit). You can’t take even a single stone out of the woods with you as a souvenir.
But you can fish. And, in many instances, you can harvest fish from the park. In fact, in Yellowstone Lake, anglers are required to kill any lake trout they catch, and for good reason.
Lakers, native to the Great Lakes region and found throughout the pothole lakes of the far north, are toxic invaders to our country’s signature swath of public land, and they’re literally eating their way through the West’s best-known native trout, the Yellowstone cutthroat.
Illegally introduced, likely from nearby Lewis Lake, some 20 years ago, lake trout, according to the National Park Service, have literally taken over Yellowstone Lake. Native Yellowstone cutthroat trout now account for but a fraction of their historic numbers.
In 2008, Park Service biologists monitoring the spawning streams that flow into Yellowstone Lake found less than a single spawning cutthroat trout per stream they visited. In 1988, when those surveys began, biologists found almost 80 fish per spawning stream.
Since lake trout were first discovered in the lake in the early 1990s, biologists have determined that Yellowstone Lake has lost an astounding 99 percent of its spawning population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout.
If that doesn’t raise your eyebrows, what does?
If the fish native to Yellowstone are to be saved, decisive steps must be taken to protect them. And that means killing and removing lake trout from Yellowstone Lake.
And, it would seem the Park Service is on the right track. In December 2010, the service published a draft proposal to not only attack Yellowstone’s invasive lake trout population, but to also rebuild some of the park’s all-but-lost native fisheries.
For example, two of the plan’s four alternatives — and the two best alternatives, as far as I’m concerned — call for commercial-grade netting of lake trout in Yellowstone Lake (today, the Park Service is failing to keep the lake trout population in check with small-scale netting).
Those same two alternatives propose aggressive protection and reintroduction efforts for all Yellowstone cutthroat populations in the park.
But the plan, should the Park Service settle on one of the two appropriate alternatives, goes a step further. It would also call for the reintroduction of native fish in many of the park’s waters that were originally home to west slope cutthroat trout and Arctic grayling.
Yellowstone was, and technically still is, the home of the southern-most reach of Arctic grayling, a fish native to the Missouri River drainage. The west slope cutthroat trout is also native to the Missouri drainage.
Now, for clarity, there are several waters the Park Service is wisely leaving alone. For instance, the Madison and Firehole rivers likely won’t be touched, meaning the non-native rainbow trout (originally from the west coast) and brown trout (Europe) that swim those storied waters will be there in perpetuity. Additionally, it’s almost impossible to fathom the Park Service ever successfully ridding Yellowstone of its exotic brook trout, which arrived in the late 1800s from Appalachia.
In fact, some of the better brookie waters, like Panther Creek, Indian Creek and Straight Creek, aren’t on the radar for native trout reintroduction.
What it boils down to is a progressive and thoughtful plan that will restore a significant amount of order to the park’s waters and hopefully result in a healthy population of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout in what could honestly be described as the “mothership” of the subspecies population—Yellowstone Lake. And, for the angler who can appreciate native trout swimming where they belong, the plan makes good sense, both from a biological standpoint and economically. The more variety the park can offer, the more attractive it is to visiting anglers.
To view the plan, visit www.nps.gov/yell. And make a plan to visit Yellowstone’s backcountry this summer, fly rod in hand.