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Some anglers lament lake trout slaughter
Critics wonder whether Yellowstone should take a more hands-off approach to fisheries.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: October 3, 2012
In Yellowstone National Park, a spotlight on the management of wolves, grizzlies and snowmobiles seems to have overshadowed scrutiny of the effort to restore native cutthroat trout.
In the cutthroat campaign, managers in the world’s first national park poison rivers and spend millions of dollars netting exotic lake trout in an effort to restore the reserve to its original state. While the efforts are in line with the park mandate to preserve Yellowstone unimpaired for future generations, they’re unsettling to a small group of anglers who value lake trout as a gamefish and believe the park’s measures are ultimately wasteful.
In a letter to the News&Guide on last week’s story “Battle of the lakers,” Peter Moyer, a Jackson attorney and fisherman, drew attention to “another side” of the park’s restoration tactics.
“The campaign is brutal,” Moyer wrote of the program to kill lake trout and other exotic species. “Miles of streams are doused with rotenone to kill all brook trout (and everything else). Hundreds of thousands of lake trout are netted each year, air bladders punctured, then released [for the fish] to die in a slow and lingering death.
“Common sense is forgotten,” his letter reads. “These species have coexisted for over 100 years in our waters.”
Management of Yellowstone’s waters is guided by the 2010 Native Fish Conservation Plan. It calls for the Yellowstone Lake’s mackinaw, or lake trout, population to be reduced by 25 percent a year for six consecutive years. It obliges Yellowstone officials to restore cutthroat trout abundance to the average observed around the 1994 discovery of lake trout.
Outside of the big lake, Yellowstone managers plan to kill non-native trout in seven streams and rivers and two lakes. The goal is to make way for restoration of the waterway’s original denizens through the transplanting of cutthroats.
Methods vary, but using fish poisons, such as rotenone, is the norm. After a waterway is cleansed, the native fish are brought back in.
Historically, millions of cutthroat running to spawn in Yellowstone Lake’s 60 tributaries were an important food for grizzlies, otters, eagles, osprey and other species. But larger predatory mackinaw, believed illegally introduced from nearby Lewis Lake, have reduced the population by around 90 percent.
Organized efforts to challenge Yellowstone’s restoration activities don’t appear to exist.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition has committed itself to “protect and restore the once-great population of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake and its tributaries.”
Trout Unlimited supports the plan, and has even given money to fund lake trout tracking devices on “Judas fish,” said Rich Hostetler, the past president of the organization’s East Yellowstone chapter.
“Once we found out what was going on, we were in total support of it,” Hostetler said. “Yellowstone cutthroat trout are declining to the point that they might be put on the Endangered Species List. At that point, we get involved.”
In general, Trout Unlimited supports native species restoration and won’t commit funds to lakes and rivers that are actively stocked with nonnative trout, he said.
Aside from Moyer, critics include Fred Staehr and Paul Bruun, two other Jackson anglers.
The three, who have not organized to fight the park, say Yellowstone is committing a lot of resources to attacking an all but irreversible problem. They argue that lake and cutthroat trout have coexisted in many regional waters, including lakes in Grand Teton National Park, for more than a century. They also say Yellowstone’s assault on lakers gives mackinaw — a prized game fish in places — a bad name.
Staehr, who has fished Yellowstone waters for decades, said he’s doubtful the park can make a long-term difference to the cutthroat-laker dynamic. Ironically, he has donated to support the effort to kill lake trout.
“It’s almost a waste of money,” the retired fishing guide said. “It seems to me that we’re chasing a phantom here. It’s never going to be what it was.
“[Yellowstone Lake] has already been ruined as a big cutthroat fishery,” he said. “I hope that what they’re doing has some impact, but I really wonder.”
Because of Yellowstone Lake’s depth and size — 394 feet and 139-square-miles — lake trout can be suppressed but will never be eradicated from Yellowstone Lake, Todd Koel, the park’s fisheries supervisor, said last month.
Staehr agreed efforts to suppress the population would have to persist indefinitely. Lower-cost but less-proven techniques that may be employed focus on killing mackinaw eggs in spawning beds.
Bruun, a News&Guide columnist and former fishing outfitter, said he doesn’t like “the backlash” of the Yellowstone lake trout cull.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love the native cutthroat,” he said. “I just don’t like the spillover that this has created. To the average environmental enthusiast on the street, you mention lake trout, and they don’t like them.”
In the fall 2012 issue of “The Drake,” a flyfishing magazine, the former newspaperman wrote about “vindicating the much-maligned mackinaw.”
“Those experienced in Jenny, Leigh, Phelps, Lower Slide, Grassy, Jackson, and Yellowstone’s Heart lakes attest that a cutthroat strike is still rough and tumble despite being home to jumbo lake trout,” Bruun wrote.
As early as the 1930s, Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials were worried about the ecological consequences of non-native fish stocking. A 1940 document gave the park “priority for stocking only native trout,” according to a paper titled “A Century of Fisheries Management in Grand Teton National Park.”
However, the sentiment didn’t translate into policy for decades. Lake trout were stocked in Jackson Lake by Game and Fish, which collaborates with the park, as recently as five years ago.
While Grand Teton doesn’t actively suppress non-native trout — found in most all its larger waters — Sue Consolo-Murphy, Grand Teton’s chief of science and resource management, said that doesn’t mean there isn’t a priority for native cutthroat.
“The history is quite different, and I think it’s important to understand that,” she said.
Jackson Lake’s mackinaw are from transplants in Yellowstone’s Lewis Lake, which was first stocked with a Lake Michigan-strain of the fish in 1890. They remain such a pure strain that Great Lakes biologists seek Lewis Lake lakers for their restoration efforts.
By 1908, Lewis Lake lakers made their way downstream to Jackson Lake, Consolo-Murphy said. Stocking started in 1937 and persisted until 2007.
But because of spotty long-term records, the impact of lakers on Jackson Lake’s cutthroat isn’t fully understood.
“It was very hard to discern, although there’s certainly widespread acknowledgment that lake trout getting into Jackson Lake was not good for cutthroat trout,” Consolo-Murphy said. “At least in the last decade or so, the cutthroat trout numbers have remained about stable.”
Grand Teton officials have frequent discussions with Game and Fish about strategies to enhance native fish, but at this stage, suppressing non-natives is not on the table, Consolo-Murphy said.
Such an effort “would be extremely costly,” she said. “We’re biting off doable chunks within our initial capacity.”
Limited resources aside, Consolo-Murphy and Susan O’ney, Grand Teton’s late hydrologist, have considered a more hands-on approach.
“We did get to the point where we talked about doing a native fisheries management plan,” Consolo-Murphy said. “It certainly is something we always keep in mind.”
Moyer contrasted the parks’ different management styles.
“Grand Teton National Park has not taken a similar path, and their lakes have cutthroat and lake trout,” he said. “That’s why a lot of people are worked up.”
“If lake trout in Yellowstone Lake are so devastating to cutthroat and threaten them with extinction, why have they coexisted for 120 years in Heart Lake six miles away?” Moyer asked in an interview. “Why have they coexisted in Jenny Lake? Jackson Lake?”