I hate to admit it, but at times here in the western fringes of the east coast, I get a little resentful. Resentful may be a bit strong, maybe slightly rebuffed. What I’m talking about is the perception of conservation and the fortifying of our native fish species here compared to out west in the Rockies. Brookies vs. Cutthroats. More is written and pondered and debated about how to restore Yellowstone, Westslope, Bonneville, Greenbacks, etc, that it’s easy to over look what is being done for our misnamed little char. Maybe it’s because the Rocky Mountains and in particular the allure of the streams running through none other than our first National Park, Yellowstone that holds such a day dream fascination in the psyche of so many anglers merely for the fact they may one day fish in “The Park.” Maybe it’s that the cutthroat in many of its varieties is an easier win than saving the brookie whose home water is being crunched, filled in and poisoned by urbanization, suburbanization, mountain top mining, hydraulic fracturing shale gas exploration, acid mine drainage…you get the point. But maybe, just maybe the lessons we learn from a win or two in Yellowstone can give us some best practices in saving our brookie.
I never fished inside Yellowstone, yet I’ve fished where I could see the park from the mountain peaks I climbed in SW Montana in search of lakes holding non-nantive Golden Trout. I’ve caught both Yellowstone Cuts in the Shields River and West Slopes in Taylors Fork, I felt a sense of accomplishment to catch more species of trout in its native waters. But, I learned in my visits out west, The Park to my friend living in Bozeman and to many of the people in Montana has become a political hot button.
Yellowstone lives in a multi-dimensional paradox. Where a tourist attraction whose central feature is its wildlife, but the wildlife is as carefully managed as a city Zoo. Where letting the food chain reach it’s natural stasis becomes a questions for our court system instead of the justice that comes with the survival of the fittest. Where the interests of wealthy private landowners force tax payer dollars to be spent on vaccinations for the bison herd. Where you can find absolute solitude in a place visited by nearly 3.4 million people last year. Where one carpet bagging trout in Yellowstone lake risks the decimation of a native trout population but now has become another frontline in the war against invasive species. This last paradox, is the one that gives me hope for the brookie.
I’m reminded of a New York Times article from last summer discussing the removal of the Judas fish, the Lake Trout. The lake trout in Yellowstone Lake is the embodiment of the unintended consequences of a well-meaning act. Lakers were first discovered in Yellowstone Lake almost 20 years ago, from that moment on, that lake and the park itself have become a laboratory in how to effective identify, control and eliminate an aquatic invasive species. Yellowstone lake is home to the largest population and concentration of the Yellowstone cutthroat in its native range, so the discovery of an aggressive trout that can grow to over 20 pounds and live up to 40 years sent off many sirens among park officials, conservation groups and anglers. I found that article from the times to be extremely illuminating and was encouraged by the actions taken by a collective group in trying to manage the Laker issue. Nets have been employed since the lakers discovery to help remove larger numbers at a time, but this fish that can individually produce over 100 surviving young annually is no match for nets. Anglers have been required to keep any caught laker, but that hasn’t been enough to stem the tide either. The part of the article that encouraged me the most was that scientists where putting tracking beacons on the lakers in an effort to locate their spawning grounds in the lake. The idea being, if you can disturb the spawn and begin to eliminate year classes of fish, you will cause that population to crumble. It’s not an immediate fix, but its a fix that can be managed and sustained.
This method gives me hope because if successful, it will make fisheries managers around the country look for other methods in managing invasive fish species in trout stream besides, in particular, the hydrogen bomb method of dumping rotenone in a body of water to kill the bad guys…and everything else. (Remember the Pike Minnow!) The fact that we have a place like Yellowstone in this country is what makes this place the best in the world. Not only do we have access to Yellowstone by simply being able to fog a mirror on US soil, but it’s regarded as a natural treasure whose caretakers are constantly obsessed with making it as natural and as complete of a native ecosystem as possible, despite living in perpetual political paradox. It has become our national laboratory in how to maintain and restore our rivers, streams and lakes. Methods can be attempted and made into best practices where the margin of error is much more generous than testing a method in the east where brook trout populations can be so low that a small mistake could make a stream vacant of nearly all life.
So, when I read another article about the plight or recovery of the Yellowstone or Westslope or Bonneville Cutthroat and my ire begins to rise, I need to take a step back. A step back to realize that those efforts are the pioneers, and when the methods are perfected they will help to ensure that my decades away grandchildren will have brook trout to catch in my favorite waters, and hopefully waters where populations will recover, repopulate, thrive and occasionally amenable to take a fly. Thank You, Yellowstone.