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A brook trout in New England is a vastly different fish from a brook trout in the West. Genetically identical, same spots on its flanks, still heartbreakingly beautiful, but a brookie in the West is a fish out of water, if you will. That’s because brook trout are native to the East. Saunter up a babbling brook that cascades down through a lush, dense forest in the gentle Green Mountains of Vermont – brook trout country. Slither through some sagebrush alongside a fast-flowing freestone river framed by snow-covered 11,000-foot peaks in June in southwest Montana – not brook trout country. What happened? Simple: some “bucket biologists” with genuinely good intentions – both government-sponsored and independent – stocked rivers around the country with reckless abandon in the late nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. Those big brown trout in the Yellowstone River? They, like soccer and small bathrooms, are native to Europe. And the fittingly named rainbow trout? Native to the rivers of the Pacific coast. The thinking was: Trout are good, so more trout must be better. Rivers were supplemented, fishless streams were amended, and our nation’s waterways would never be the same.

Saving Native Trout in Yellowstone

A brook trout in New England is a vastly different fish from a brook trout in the West. Genetically identical, same spots on its flanks, still heartbreakingly beautiful, but a brookie in the West is a fish out of water, if you will.

That’s because brook trout are native to the East. Saunter up a babbling brook that cascades down through a lush, dense forest in the gentle Green Mountains of Vermont – brook trout country. Slither through some sagebrush alongside a fast-flowing freestone river framed by snow-covered 11,000-foot peaks in June in southwest Montana – not brook trout country.

What happened? Simple: some “bucket biologists” with genuinely good intentions – both government-sponsored and independent – stocked rivers around the country with reckless abandon in the late nineteenth century and much of the twentieth.

Those big brown trout in the Yellowstone River? They, like soccer and small bathrooms, are native to Europe. And the fittingly named rainbow trout? Native to the rivers of the Pacific coast.

The thinking was: Trout are good, so more trout must be better. Rivers were supplemented, fishless streams were amended, and our nation’s waterways would never be the same.

Today, some of our native fish species are paying dearly for our misguided efforts of yesteryear, none more so than the Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Yellowstone cutts, as their name implies, are native to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They are gorgeous fish, with an orange slash along the bottom of each gill plate (hence “cut throat”), rounded heads and what has always looked like to me: a friendly face.

Historically, their stronghold has been Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake at high elevation (i.e., more than 7,000 feet) in North America, and its many tributaries.

But thanks to non-native lake trout that were illegally stocked a few decades ago, the Yellowstone cutthroat population in Yellowstone Lake has plummeted in recent years due to predation by the lake trout, which is bad for grizzly bears, eagles, ospreys, otters and the long-term future of Yellowstone cutts.

Adding fuel to the fire, Yellowstone cutthroat trout in rivers and streams away from Yellowstone Lake, including such fabled waters as Slough Creek and the Lamar River, are threatened by competition from non-native trout (i.e., rainbows, browns and brookies) as well as hybridization from rainbow trout, as both Yellowstone cutts and rainbows are spring spawners.

(Oh, and there’s also this little fella named Climate Change, but let’s not go there today.)

Fortunately, Yellowstone National Park and the National Park Service have recognized the seriousness of the situation, and they recently released a Native Fish Conservation Plan, which sets out a more aggressive strategy to deal with this calamity.

And the plan is not limited to Yellowstone cutthroat trout. It encompasses protection efforts for two other severely imperiled native fish: river-dwelling Arctic grayling, which are now completely gone from all park waters, and westslope cutthroat trout, which now exist in only two small creeks.

According to the plan’s environmental assessment, “of the approximately 644 km of river habitat that originally supported native fish when the park was established, only 50 km still have native fish that are genetically unaltered, while approximately 736 km currently support non-native and/or hybridized (genetically altered) trout.”

Clearly, the time for action is now.

The park’s conservation plan will involve various methods and projects, with the highest native fish conservation priority being the restoration of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake. To accomplish this worthy goal, the park will, among other things, ramp up its netting of non-native lake trout for the next several years.

Additionally, the plan prescribes for removing non-native fish from certain streams, rivers and lakes in the park, creating artificial barriers or modifying existing natural features (i.e., small waterfalls) to prevent upstream movement of non-native fish, and then restocking such waters with genetically unaltered native fish (i.e., Yellowstone cutts, westslope cutts, Arctic grayling). No changes have been proposed for the Madison or Firehole Rivers.

The park will begin implementing its native fish plan this summer, and the timing could not be better, as native trout (and salmon) continue to face more and more threats across the country these days. Habitat loss, climate change, hybridization, predation and competition from non-native fish; listing the myriad of threats gives me a headache.

But in Yellowstone, the country’s first national park, the park service is about to roll up its sleeves and get to work protecting and restoring native fish in the park. For that, I am grateful.

I look forward to hiking into the backcountry meadows of Slough Creek in Yellowstone with a fly rod this summer. I look forward to catching and releasing several plump Yellowstone cutts. I look forward to my knees getting weak at the sight of those beautiful fish.

And in 50 years, thanks to the park’s bold new plan, I look forward to our grandkids doing the exact same thing.

Matt Skoglund writes regularly at Switchboard, the staff blog for the Natural Resources Defense Council. This article originally appeared in the Bozeman Magpie.

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8 comments

  1. I heard that there is no limit to keeping lake trout or other non-natives when caught from Yellowstone Lake. Is that true?

    Thanks.

  2. Now that we (society) are waking up to the fact that man-aided introduction of non-native species may be the worst of environmental degradations, we should pull out all stops to try to fix what we’ve damaged even though it was initially with good intentions. In other words, when the campfire was just enough to warm us we thought it was good. When it grew bigger and sparks were flying we were concerned but inactive. Now that the sparks have caused a raging fire sweeping down the ridge toward our homes we wished we would have pulled out all the stops when the sparks first concerned us. There may be collateral damage associated with getting the “fire” out now but the long term benefits are too important not to make our best effort. Let’s not lose other species in the chain broken by lake trout and say, “We should have done all we could back when. . .”

  3. There’s another interesting aspect to fishing regs I’d like to point out. The park completely wimps out on the issue of Cutt/Rainbow hybrids, defining any fish with any amount of orange on the jaw as a Cutt (and therefore subject to catch and release only).

    Idaho recognizes and defines the difference, and encourages anglers to keep hybrids in some waters. Apparently, only angers in Idaho are smart enough to be trusted to recognize a hybrid.

  4. The smugness and arrogance of this article and the people who feel compelled to undertake these eradication efforts just blow me away. There’s a recurring theme of “our forefathers were idiots and knew nothing, now we’re smart and know everything, and we’ll fix it”. Well, guess what, we DON’T know everything, and the odds that we’re just going to screw things up more are all but guaranteed.

    The irony is that you’re just repeating the same basic mistake of trying to “fix” nature. It doesn’t matter, and nature doesn’t care, what your motives are. Nature will do what nature will do, and that’s usually something unexpected and unforeseen.

    I also have a huge problem with this concept of “native”. Picking an arbitrary point in time, and then trying to assert that only those species that were here at that particular time deserve “protection” is not only wrong, but it demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how nature works. You can argue all day long about man’s role in all of this, what it has been, and what it should be. But I believe we’d be much better off protecting what we have now, rather than trying to “restore” things to the way they used to be.

  5. It seems that when “non-native” spp are introduced by human action it isn’t the gradual, natural climax action of nature. Human intervention results in moving things toward a monoculture at an unnatural speed. That doesn’t allow for natural selection or adaptation that may occur in the natural world. Maybe somehow lake trout eggs would remain viable after being eaten by a walking catfish that walked over the big hill and stumbled into Yellowstone Lake and hatched out but there are some things that just are not going to happen unless human action is the conduit. I don’t consider human activity using trucks, plastic buckets, roads or staying warm with synthetic sleeping bags part of the natural selection. I think we owe it to the natural selection process to let it be that and if we messed it up thinking we were doing good, we should also use our intelligence to try to make it right. I think nature does care, hence laws prohibiting injurious wildlife importation. Score another one for the Park Service.

  6. I’m in agreement LK. Consider the dynamics of Europeans coming to the continent. Many native human populations no longer exist because of disease introduced by us. Another issue at hand is human intervention by genetic engineering. Here in my neck of the woods one of the great natural wonders and fishing experiences is at Diamond Lake (Umpqua National Forest, Oregon). The entire North Umpqua river system was hammered by the Tui Chub introduced by fishermen as a good bait. The Tui destroyed the entire aquatic habitat of the lake. Fish, macroinvertebrates, birds etc where thrown out of kilter by these fast multiplying bait fish. The pristine lake turned into a scum pond.
    Jim Greer, I agree and disagree with your premise. Mostly the issue is one of relative “restoration”. We’ve impacted just about everything in our world. To restore ecological function to its original condition isn’t very likely. We can use what once was as a measuring stick to see what nature decided would be the most resilient sustainable ecology over time for a given region. We can bring the system back as close as we can so it doesn’t implode on itself as has happened in many places.

  7. I’m not saying I don’t support reasonable efforts to help certain species. I’m certainly not in favor of man intentionally introducing new species to existing ecosystems as was done in the past. But, I absolutely do NOT support wiping out entire populations of other creatures to support an objective of “restoring” a native species.

    “I think nature does care, hence laws prohibiting injurious wildlife importation. Score another one for the Park Service.”

    I guess my definition of Nature is different than yours. Mine doesn’t make laws. And, it isn’t just the Park Service doing this crap. Did any of you actually read the article from the Bozeman Chronicle that fish guy posted? If not, you should.

  8. I do see your global view of humans and “What will be will be and that’s part of nature”, but our appointed position at the top of the intelligence pyramid makes it incumbent on us to watch what we’re stepping on. I’m done, thanks.