September 21, 2021 by Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile
Wyoming has launched a long-term plan to restore Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout in the Bighorn Basin and make parts of five watersheds exclusive to sensitive species.
The Game and Fish Department earlier this year completed a conservation plan for the basin east of Yellowstone National Park that includes fish poisoning in some watersheds as part of the restoration of Yellowstone’s Cutthroat . Non-native cousins like speckled trout and rainbow trout are “biggest threat” to Yellowstone cutthroat and “biggest obstacle” to their conservation, says Game and Fish in plan .
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Since rainbows interbreed and produce hybrid “arc cut” offspring, the preservation of true Yellowstone cutthroat requires the maintenance of many isolated populations of other species. “Upstream isolation” is the agency’s preferred method of achieving the objective.
The strategy will use existing natural fish barriers and would require the construction of at least one artificial barrier. Ultimately, the Yellowstone Cutthroat would exist exclusively in the upper parts of five Bighorn sub-basins, including four “metapopulations” where a series of tributaries and even lakes would support a thriving community.
“I think it will take several decades,” said Sam Hochhalter, regional fisheries supervisor at the Cody Game and Fisheries Department. His office has embarked on a two-year public engagement effort to incorporate regional ideas into the plan, with good results, he said.
While Game and Fish has decades of Cody area wildlife statistics, Hochhalter said, it only has three biologists. “The people who participated… represent centuries of knowledge,” he said. “They came up with projects that weren’t on our radar.”
A beautiful fish
There are many reasons to preserve the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, including the fact that it was considered protected under the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s. Although the US Fish and Wildlife Service no. Federal protection has not been extended to the species, the Yellowstone Cutthroat remains troubled due to habitat degradation, hybridization, and competition from non-native fish.
Beyond that, “the Yellowstone cutthroat trout will eagerly come to the surface for a dry fly,” Hochhalter said. “It’s a pretty fun way to fish.
“It’s a beautiful fish; the coloring on them is exquisite, ”he said, referring to a shade often referred to as“ butter ”. They also exist in a land populated by bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, and other symbols of enduring nature.
People enjoy excursions into the mountainous landscape that is home to such wildlife, “knowing that fish have been swimming in these streams for thousands of years,” he said.
Game and Fish, however, should be sensitive to anglers who appreciate all wild fish, whether native or not. Back packers and horses, for example, love brook trout because of its abundance and how easily it can be caught and turned into a meal.
“Fishermen,” Hochhalter said, “love this aspect of brook trout fishing.”
But a guide who plies the merciless waters of Yellowstone – Jean Bruun de Jackson of the Wyoming Angling Company – has said that sometimes agencies and bureaucracies focus too much on one aspect of an issue.
“It’s easier to identify a single enemy and try to rally all your resources, funding and processes to fight that enemy,” she said. “I think what we learned is there [is] much more of an enemy.
“I love and I celebrate our natives [trout], but I love and I celebrate [all] our wild populations, ”she said. For more than 100 years in the Yellowstone area, she said, native and non-native “were able to live side by side.”
Bruun’s respect for all wild fish and her reluctance to immediately point fingers at other species are views shared with her husband, guide and newspaper columnist. The fate of the Yellowstone cut throat has “[e]very green activist, trutist, aquatic and chair biologist, sporting goods peddler, chamber of commerce type, editor, journalist and professional fundraiser… vociferous, ”Paul Bruun wrote in the Jackson Hole News & Guide in 2014.
Clamor is what Game and Fish heard when it sought to implement the first of its restoration initiatives a few years ago, Hochhalter said. Game and Fish operated under a multi-state, multi-agency agreement forged in 2000 after federal biologists deemed ESA protections unnecessary. The Yellowstone Cutthroat historically occupied parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah.
The interstate group continued to work beyond this federal decision, Hochhalter said, but found the public to be skeptical of the poisoning and elimination of other species. “We were under some control suggesting that Game and Fish was on the verge of deleting [too many] non-native trout, which we just didn’t like brook trout, ”he said.
The agency formed a working group of neighborhood residents with transparency as an objective. “We asked the public what their interests and concerns were,” Hochhalter said. “We left it to them to find out about the logistics, to tell us what they thought was [the best] restoration.”
Ideas gathered from seven workshops involving 176 participants, including members of the East Yellowstone chapter of Trout Unlimited, helped produce the plan. After reading the scientific literature, resistance to poisoning among task force members declined, Hochhalter said. However, it took Game and Fish another two years of fieldwork to confirm that the task force’s proposals had merit.
More importantly, the plan designates parts of Bighorn Lake, Clarks Fork of Yellowstone, Nowood, North Fork of Shoshone, and South Fork of Shoshone Drainages as exclusive Yellowstone Cutthroat Reserves. In each of the five sub-basins, Yellowstone cutthroats will thrive either in five small isolated populations or in a “meta” population. Metapopulations include several tributaries in which the species’ natural way of life – including aspects such as migration and spawning – is represented.
All told, the plan would increase the exclusive habitat of Yellowstone’s Cutthroat Streams by about 125 miles, increasing the domain from 185 miles to 310 miles in the basin. The plan would increase Yellowstone’s exclusive cut-throat lakes from 13, increasing the number from four to 17.
The exclusive area of Merciless Lake Yellowstone would increase from 56 to 355 acres, an increase of 299 acres, according to calculations made from the state plan. Ultimately, the Bighorn Basin would host 16 isolated populations and four metapopulations, an increase of nine and two respectively.
Without human help, “current populations of cutthroat trout cannot be considered safe or likely to persist in the long term,” according to scientific research.
Swimming through the Continental Divide
In addition to its colorful slash and red cheeks, the Yellowstone cut-throat is notable for swimming over the Continental Divide, possibly over Two Ocean Pass in the Teton Wilderness, according to the calculations of scientists. Originally a Pacific drainage species, the only places the species naturally occurred in the Atlantic drainage was the drainage of the Yellowstone River, parts of Montana, and Bighorn Basin.
Aside from flashy colors and historic migrations, the species plays an important role in the ecosystem, providing food for 16 species of birds and mammals, including grizzly bears. Once the dominant fish species in Yellowstone National Park, numbers have declined.
The illegal introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake has decimated a stronghold, according to the National Park Service. The number of Yellowstone cutthroats spawning in the Clear Creek tributary increased from 70,000 in 1978 to 538 in 2007, according to Yellowstone biologists.
According to the plan, Game and Fish would poison the upstream shrines, then move the genetically pure Yellowstone Cutthroat back into the isolated segment. Ecologists seek resilience, representation and redundancy in such species conservation plans. These parameters ensure that a species persists, that it is genetically diverse and uses the landscape in the way it evolved, and that a single localized adverse event will not lead to its extinction.
Game and Fish studied nine basins before choosing the five targeted watersheds where Yellowstone’s cutthroats struggled, where physical barriers could isolate them from non-native species, and where the public has access.
In many places, natural waterfall barriers exist. But a scope would require an artificial structure and more resources to accomplish, which takes longer to achieve.
For the guide Jean Bruun, the Game and Fish plan appears to be the right balance. “We have dipped our shoes in many waters,” she said, summarizing how international trade and travel have spread alien and invasive species around the world.
For a successful plan, however, Game and Fish cannot impose doctrine across a large area. “Game and Fish needs to look at a watershed individually,” she said. “You cannot generalize.”
It is normal that Game and Fish “identifies where these [Yellowstone] genetics must be protected, ”she said. “We have an opportunity in these small areas.
“If these are habitable areas for those [Yellowstone] fish – removing 100 rainbows to prevent them from hybridizing – I don’t see a problem with that.
“We want to do whatever we can to protect our wild trout populations,” she said, including the stream, brown and rainbow populations. “We love our throats – all of our throats. They have been here for over 10,000 years and they belong here. They are my business partners.
For Hochhalter, the formation of the task force – the first for a Wyoming fishing project – disseminated good information and avoided the prospect of the public drawing conclusions from limited data and stereotypes. In the end, all the proposed projects came from the task force, he said.
The public want a variety of fishing opportunities and the ability to cast on different species, he said. “Really, what they want… is to be able to fish for each of them. “
This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent, non-profit news organization focused on the people, places and politics of Wyoming.