Return of the Native
Non-indigenous fish were introduced to Yellowstone decades ago. Now, in the few places possible and in the face of loud opposition, the park is correcting that blunder.
by Ted Williams
The most ambitious native-fish recovery project ever attempted is underway in our first and most beloved national park. There are major political challenges, but at least in Yellowstone the chemophobe crazies who disrupt such work all over the West with wives’ tales about rotenone are nowhere to be seen.
In 87,000-acre Yellowstone Lake, which once sustained 80 percent of all Yellowstone cutthroat trout, the non-chemical war on unlawfully introduced lake trout is at last going well. And native-fish recovery has been scheduled, completed or is underway on some Yellowstone National Park streams where native westslope cutts, Yellowstone cutts, and fluvial (river-dwelling) arctic grayling have been eliminated by alien trout unleashed during the era of ecological illiteracy by the U.S. Fish Commission (renamed the Bureau of Sport Fisheries in 1902).
Because rotenone works only on small streams, fewer than five percent of park waters will be treated. The Lamar drainage (Slough Creek, Soda Butte and the Lamar River) is too big for rotenone. But wherever possible the park has been using electro shocking to rid the drainage of cuttbows, rainbows and brook trout. And catch-and-release for brook trout and trout with obvious rainbow markings is now illegal in the drainage. If you land one and don’t kill it, you’re in violation.
This last reg has been tough to swallow even for the most enlightened anglers. One of the heroes of native-trout recovery in the park is Craig Mathews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone and FR&R’s 2005 Angler of the Year. Mathews has been tireless in promoting and raising money for lake trout control. And he strongly advocates elimination of aliens in the smaller streams, even when those aliens include his beloved brown trout. But he tells me he can’t bring himself to kill Lamar-drainage rainbows.
I can’t blame him. For regular park anglers long ingrained with the catch-and-release ethic that mindset is understandable. But all who choose to fish the Lamar drainage should be mindful of two facts: 1. the park’s legal mandate leaves it no other choice than to establish such a regulation; and 2. if enough anglers comply, native Yellowstone cutt genes will eventually swamp most rainbow genes.
Unlike other state and federal resource agencies, the National Park Service has no wiggle room when it comes to its mission -- protecting and restoring native ecosystems and, within reason, allowing natural processes to proceed uninhibited. In 1916 Congress passed the service’s “Organic Act,” requiring the new agency to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife” of all units “leave[ing] them unimpaired.” So Yellowstone fisheries managers would be breaking federal law if they stood by while lake trout chow down on Yellowstone cutts or when browns, brookies and rainbows persist in the few waters where native-fish recovery is possible and where these aliens threaten or have extirpated Yellowstone cutts, westslope cutts and fluvial arctic grayling.
Park critics in West Yellowstone, Bozeman and Livingston have exaggerated the Lamar-drainage regulation to the point that word among the angling community was (and to some extent still is) that if you catch a non-native fish in the park, you have to kill it. But of the Yellowstone’s 200 fishable streams that regulation applies to just three. If you don’t feel like killing rainbows, cuttbows or brookies, just don’t fish the Lamar drainage.
Yellowstone’s chief scientist, Dave Hallac, an avid fly fisher who has guided in Alaska, told me this: “Releasing rainbows [and brook trout] is just not consistent with what we’re trying to achieve in the Lamar drainage. We’re finding rainbows all the way up to the second meadow of Slough Creek -- some of the most sacred water in the park. I grew up in New Jersey, five miles from New York City, and I caught rainbow trout there. I can assure you there’s nothing special about catching rainbows in Yellowstone, but there’s something incredibly special about catching native cutthroats and, before long, fluvial grayling. Many people I talk to are overwhelmed when they get to see bison, wolves or grizzlies. It’s an emotional experience. I’ve often thought what if we’d introduced zebras? Would anyone say that’s great; zebras are beautiful and we want to photograph them? What we’ve got with some of these non-native fish is really no different.”
Were it not for Yellowstone National Park -- and in particular John Varley, the biologist who went on to be the park’s head resource manager -- America’s compelling catch-and-release ethic might not even exist. No kill, which went into effect on most park waters in 1973, was nearly as controversial as wolf reintroduction. Trotting out the old mythology they’d been taught in college and grad school, state game-and-fish bureaucrats around the nation ranted about how you “can't stockpile harvestable surpluses.” Guides, outfitters and anglers were apoplectic, claiming they’d be forced out of business. Outdoor writers reported that the feds were plotting to end all sportfishing. But Varley and his colleagues stood tall. They understood something the public didn’t -- that trout are wildlife, too, and that park visitors were removing and mostly wasting something terrestrial wildlife desperately needed.
When trout were being legally killed in the park 50,000 anglers a year at Fishing Bridge had to wait an average of seven hours and 40 minutes between fish. Despite the slow fishing, the most common item in park trash cans was whole Yellowstone cutthroat trout. “When the Craighead brothers were studying grizzles in the park in the 1960s they never saw a bear take a trout [save from trash cans],” Varley told me. By 1975, with no-kill just kicking in, grizzlies were fishing 17 of the 59 cutthroat spawning streams collected by Yellowstone Lake. By the early 1990s they were fishing 55; and one research team observed a sow with cubs averaging 100 fish a day for ten days. Once again, cutthroats were the sockeye salmon of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, supporting a long food chain whose links included grizzlies, black bears, otters, bald eagles, ospreys, kingfishers, loons, and white pelicans, to mention just a few.
I was with Varley in late July 1994, a few hours after the first lake trout was caught in Yellowstone Lake. The report made him physically ill. “I just can't think of worse news,” he declared. “They could have said brook trout -- well, that's bad news, but we can get around that. They could have said brown trout; they could have said almost anything, but not lake trout.”
By 2004 the planet’s greatest cutthroat sanctuary lay in ruins. During an eight-week survey of nine Yellowstone Lake spawning tributaries only 35 trout were seen. Grizzlies had essentially ceased fishing; during that year there were only eight reports of bear activity on all spawning streams. In 2001 Yellowstone Lake cutthroats had supported at least 60 breeding pairs of ospreys. By 2009 osprey pairs were down to four, and for the previous two years they’d produced no young. Sixteen years of increasingly intense lake-trout control by gillnets had produced no observable result.
But the environmental community responded. Led by the national office of Trout Unlimited and its Idaho, Wyoming and Montana chapters, it poured funds into lake trout control. Sophisticated sonic tracking studies revealed where lake trout spawned and how they moved. Cutthroat bycatch was virtually eliminated. Today’s gillnetting effort is not only about ten times that of 1999 but far more effective per man hour. In 2004 crews removed 26,634 lake trout. For each of the last two years they’re removed about 300,000.
In the fall of 2011 Hallac’s fisheries staff came to him and said. “You gotta see this.” Their graph showed a huge pulse of juvenile cutthroats. Before that they’d found lots of big fish and almost no small ones. Maybe it was an anomaly, they thought. But the same pulse of small fish showed up in 2012 and 2013.
“That’s extremely encouraging, says Hallac. “At some point we’ll have a tool to eliminate lake trout, but that’s not currently feasible. What we can achieve now is to make lake trout ecologically insignificant. It’s the model for exotic plant management throughout the country. Early in the infestation you put lots of resources into knocking down the population, then you go into maintenance mode with much less effort.”
You’ve heard the old saw about how a few concerned citizens can make a difference. Well, it’s true, as the Wild Trout Conservation Coalition reminds us. But, as the coalition also reminds us, that difference isn’t always positive. What the coalition seeks to conserve -- via a barrage of biological and historical fiction -- are mongrels and aliens.
Its president -- Capt. Carter Andrews of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a prominent fresh and saltwater fishing guide and host of The Outdoor Channel TV show “The Obsession of Carter Andrews” -- offers this: “A new management campaign undertaken by Yellowstone National Park stands to devastate the wild trout stocks within park waters…. Many anglers will confirm that the park’s science here is illogical. Lake trout and Yellowstone cutthroat occupy radically different places in the water column, and their habits rarely coincide… Despite this evidence, the Yellowstone Park Service [sic] has instituted a killing campaign in Yellowstone Lake. A team of commercial fishermen has been hired to string gillnets across Yellowstone Lake in order to corral the very fish that the park itself introduced, no doubt creating a bycatch that goes unmentioned. So doing, the Park Service is effectively destroying a fishery of great aesthetic, recreational, and economic value.”
Coalition founder, Jackson Hole attorney Peter Moyer, echoes Andrews’ contention that Yellowstone cutts and lake trout have cohabitated amiably for over a century. And he claims that the anti-lake trout campaign is likely a ploy of unethical biologists who seek to build their careers by such means as data faking. When they claim to find lots of lake trout stuffed with Yellowstone cutts they may be cheating by feeling the stomachs first and then cutting open the ones that obviously contain fish, Moyer told the Jackson Hole News & Guide. “Careers for biologists have been built on it,” he continued. Their motivations for this scientific misconduct are tied to “a huge campaign that’s been going on for 19 years.”
In my interview with Moyer he extended blame to Trout Unlimited and Hallac: “I think TU has been a major reason for the whole campaign,” he said. “The TU people in D.C. work with the National Park Service in D.C.; and their hands are tied out here... Hallac came up to Yellowstone several years ago after receiving Park Service kudos fighting invasive species in Everglades National Park. He’s highly aggressive, ambitious, a promoter/salesman for the killing campaign. To many of us, wild trout brought to Yellowstone by the federal government over 120 years ago are a bit different from Burmese pythons set loose by pet owners.”
One of the main arguments of the Wild Trout Conservation Coalition, as absurd as it is irrelevant, is that lake trout were stocked in Yellowstone Lake in the late 19th century by the Park Service (26 years before the agency existed). Clearly, they were not introduced by any federal entity (though playing musical chairs with species was the U. S. Fish Commission’s modus operandi). Otolith studies have determined that in the 1980s the chemistry of the water in which the lake trout swam changed abruptly from that of Lewis Lake (which the U. S. Fish Commission did pollute with lake trout in 1890) to that of Yellowstone Lake. There was never a confirmed report of a lake trout in Yellowstone Lake before 1994. And in that year ichthyologist Bob Behnke told me this: “When I used to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service in the sixties we'd set gillnets all over that lake, some very deep. And we only got cutthroats.”
Until last July the Wild Trout Conservation Coalition focused mainly on defending lake trout. But then Moyer unearthed the fairy tales of the chemophobes. And he recycled them to every major and minor politician, bureaucrat and reporter he could find contact info for.
“The poisons being used on Yellowstone Park watersheds are antimycin and rotenone,” he wrote in an October 1, 2013 missive. (Antimycin hasn’t been available anywhere for almost a decade. ) “These poisons are highly toxic to humans and animals [and] can also act as mutagens interfering with DNA. The critical prey base in a watershed is devastated for years.” As support for these untruths he attached ancient screeds by anti-piscicide zealots Ann McCampbell and Nancy Erman (See Ann and Nancy’s War,” FR&R, July 2005).
I asked Al Nash, Yellowstone’s public affairs chief, if Moyer and his group speak for a majority. “It’s very hard for us to judge things like that,” he replied. But according to Craig Mathews, in contact with hundreds of park anglers and most of the outfitters and fly shop owners, the coalition’s notions are not widely shared, at least by the angling community.
Seconding Mathews’ opinion is Dave Sweet of Cody, Wyoming, another native-trout-recovery hero, winner of TU’s Distinguished Service Award, and founder of the hugely successful fund-raising effort for lake-trout control called “Save the Yellowstone Cutthroat Project.”
But Sweet makes the point that, when it comes to issues like killing alien trout, especially with rotenone, what counts with the general public and politicians is not numbers of opponents or even facts. What counts is how loudly those opponents shout. “Peter [Moyer] is just so vocal,” says Sweet. “He writes one or more letters a week; and he copies the world. I went to Washington, D. C. recently and sat down with both of our senators and our representative. As soon as they heard I wanted to talk about Yellowstone Lake the first words out of their mouths were ‘Peter Moyer.’ They’ve been copied on everything he’s written; he’s just relentless. There’s a science review panel of 14 of the top fisheries biologists across the country who are advising the Park Service on what to do. And Peter just refuses to accept what they say.”
And this from Yellowstone’s fisheries and aquatic sciences program leader, Todd Koel: “Some folks aren’t worried about the natives. But we have to be; that’s our mission. I was at Moyer’s house last July with Dave Hallac and [park superintendent] Dan Wenk. I told Moyer to come up to the lake and we’d put him in a boat and show him what we’re doing. I couldn’t get him to come.”
If allowed to proceed, recovery of Yellowstone Lake and the Lamar drainage will require public patience. By comparison recovery of the streams will seem instantaneous.
The east branch of Specimen Creek, which originally sustained westslope cutts, has already been restored using just eggs from a naturalized population in Geode Creek (12 miles east of Mammoth) because managers wanted to promote homing. Juvenile and adult Geode Creek westslopes were released in High Lake, Specimen Creek’s source and isolated from it by falls. They’re doing well and spawning successfully. Immediately after treatment with rotenone (the poison that allegedly kills everything) the crew found healthy larvae of one of the rarest caddisflies in the West--Rhyacophila alexanderi.
Fluvial grayling were extirpated from Yellowstone long ago, but in aptly named Grayling Creek on the west side their habitat remains intact. In the summer of 2013 the park rotenoned all of Grayling Creek and its tributaries down to a specially constructed fish barrier that protects 32 miles of former grayling and westslope cutt habitat from rainbow and brown trout infestation. Another rotenone treatment is scheduled for the summer of 2014. After that, if electro-shocking surveys don’t turn up any fish, fluvial grayling from the Big Hole River and Westslope cutts will be introduced.
“You’ll be able to go out with a 2- or 3-weight rod and name the dry fly because, as you know, grayling are not picky,” says Hallac. “And you can have a day like you’d have in Alaska, catching these gorgeous fish that originally were in the park. That’s exciting if you’re an angler or a non-angling conservationist.”
Recovery is also in process on Elk Creek for Yellowstone cutts and Goose Lake chain of lakes for Westslope cutts. And recovery will shortly get underway on the north branch and mainstem of Specimen Creek for westslopes and on the Gibbon River for westslopes and grayling.
For a half century Yellowstone National Park has led the way in native-ecosystem preservation and restoration, setting an example for the nation and world. Pointing at John Varley from his office desk was a watercolor of a human index finger metamorphosing into an exquisitely-rendered Yellowstone cutthroat. It was a name plate, showing instead of spelling who he was and what he did. To me it symbolized the finger of enlightened management transferring a few sparks of health back to a biota sickened by tinkerers.
I saw that tradition in action when Yellowstone Superintendent Jack Anderson stood up to concessionaires, politicians, the public and even biologists by transforming circus bears that ate garbage in stadia built for tourists into real bears that ate cutthroats, mammals, carrion and whitebark pine nuts in the wild. I saw the tradition continue when another Yellowstone superintendent, Robert Barbee, defended natural-fire policy to a nation indoctrinated by a shovel-toting bear with a Pooh-size brain. I saw it again when Park Service Director Bill Mott faced down an anti-environmental Reagan White House and ignorant, superstitious Congressional delegations in defense of wolf recovery and habitat acquisition. And I see it now with native-fish recovery projects designed by ecosystem conservators like Dave Hallac, Todd Koel and their boss, current park superintendent Dan Wenk.
To borrow the words of TU’s Dave Sweet, “If we can’t save our native trout in our national parks, and in particular in our first national park, we’re doomed to lose them everywhere.”
--from Fly Rod & Reel