Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Save the Yellowstone Cutthroat

Yellowstone cutthroats, like this one caught from a small stream in eastern
Idaho, are in real trouble in Yellowstone Lake. Please take the time to
comment on National Park Service's plan to save the West's signature fish.
So, you know I have this unhealthy fetish for brook trout, right? And I admit, my devotion to this shady little denizen of small water is a bit of a mystery. I like to think it stems from my fly fishing upbringing, where brookies were often the target for the camp kitchen. That, and they lived in some of the most amazing places on earth, as far as I could tell.

They still do. But, unfortunately, they live here in the West at the expense of native fish–like the Yellowstone cutthroat trout. This subspecies of cutthroat might be the West's signature fish. It once teemed in unfathomable numbers all across the Yellowstone ecosystem, from northwest Wyoming to southwest Montana and into eastern Idaho. At one time, Yellowstone cutts were found in the Snake River drainages of northern Utah.

It was so populous that the National Park Service maintained a hatchery on Yellowstone Lake, and it shipped Yellowstone cutthroat trout eggs all over the country for stocking elsewhere. I've caught them in Taylor Reservoir in Colorado, and they've been planted just about anywhere coldwater fish were able to survive. Some of those transplanted populations still exist today, and others mingled with the native cutthroats in their new drainages, creating an odd cutthroat hybrid. Chances are, if you managed to catch cutthroats in the Rockies as a kid, you were probably catching Yellowstones, or at least a hybrid, that got its genesis in Yellowstone Lake.

Today, their range is about 40 percent of what it once was. And the "heritage" population of cutthroats that teemed in the waters of Yellowstone Lake is now only about 5 percent of its historic number.

Why? Well, not brook trout... not exactly anyway (although I'm sure brookies have done their part in crowding native cutthroats out of headwaters streams all over the region). The culprit is lake trout–folks in the Midwest might recognize them by the name "mackinaw."

Lake trout, like this one, are native to the Great Lakes and
the lakes of central Canada. Photo courtesy of the
National Image Library.
Lake trout were first introduced to Yellowstone National park in the late 1800s, although not into Yellowstone Lake. They were stocked in Hart Lake and Lewis Lake, and they found their way into Shoshone Lake, but until the 1990s, none ever showed up in Yellowstone Lake.

But when they did, it was the beginning of the end for the largest population of the West's iconic trout. The National Park Service maintains that lakers were probably illegally transplanted from one of the other park lakes in Yellowstone Lake some time in the 1980s. By the time first few showed up in the 1990s, a breeding population had been established.

So what's the big deal, right? A trout is a trout is a trout, right?

Not in this case. First, lakers literally eat cutthroats. A lot of them. Big lake trout have been netted in the Yellowstone Lake and found to have 16-inch cutthroats in their bellies. They also eat other native lake-dwellers, like whitefish and sculpin.

And, like any good environmental nightmare, there's more to it.

Cutthroats are stream spawners. If you've ever been to Yellowstone Lake and walked across Fishing Bridge, you've likely seen big cutthroats on the gravel, in the current, clearing redds, laying eggs and generally getting busy. Many of the lake's cutthroats run downstream into the Yellowstone River to spawn–others run upstream into the dozens and dozens of tributary streams to spawn.

In their heyday, Yellowstone Lake's cutts were like salmon–they'd swarm into the runoff-swollen creeks by the hundreds of thousands. There, they'd be intercepted by grizzly bears, black bears, ospreys, eagles, otters ... anything that could catch a fish ate a fish. And, even in the lake, they tended to remain near the top of the water column, which made them frequently available to pelicans and raptors.

Today, with only 5 percent of these fish still migrating into the streams, the size of the meals for Yellowstone's predators is significantly smaller. My guess is that we'll see a population adjustment in riparian predators and a needed behavior change in other predators, like grizzly bears, who used to depend on cutthroats for the bulk of their yearly protein. Aside from being potentially dangerous, this would be a shameful development done at the hands of bucket biologists who couldn't leave well enough alone. Even more unfortunately, the idiots who dropped lakers into Yellowstone Lake were probably fishermen.

So why can't the cutthroat's predators simply switch over to the lake trout? Good question.

Lakers are actually a char, and a close relative to my precious brookie (sigh). Lake trout, unlike their brook trout or bull trout salvelinus cousins (you learned some Latin today!) are lake spawners. They reproduce at depths of 20 feet or greater, and they rarely run into the streams and rivers for any reason (except maybe to chase cutthroats). Additionally, they tend to spend the bulk of their lives in deep water (we used to catch lakers through ice near Gunnison, Colo., at 60 feet). That means they're not available as a food source to pelicans or raptors in the lake, and they're not available to bears or otters or other toothy critters in the rivers and streams, because they don't spawn in moving water.

See how truly important the Yellowstone cutthroat trout is to the entire biological chain of events in Yellowstone National Park? These fish are the basic building block for life in the ecosystem.

So, what can we do? Well, the Park Service is taking comments on its plan to control lake trout in Yellowstone Lake and to rebuild the native trout populations park-wide. You can comment online about the need to do whatever it takes to bring the cutthroats back to Yellowstone Lake, simply because the biological integrity of America's crown jewel–Yellowstone National Park–depends on it.

And, just as important, you can spread the word to your friends and neighbors–link to this post on Facebook and Twitter, and let's get the fly fishing community motivated to save the West's signature fish, so our kids and grandkids might one day be able to venture to Yellowstone and see a mama grizzly fishing for cutthroats in a small stream or watch an osprey splash down in the lake only to see it struggle to regain altitude with a 15-inch cutthroat in its talons.

Or, better yet, let's live to see a day when we can put a fly rod in the hands of a child and let them catch a cutthroat of their own. There's no better way to experience Yellowstone than with a fly rod in hand, and the thought that our passion might be tempered by our own carelessness is devastating.

Save the cutthroats. Please.


  1. Great post Chris. Tons of information and actionable items. Will post accordingly.

  2. Chris,
    Dave Sweet here from the WY Council of TU and recently named Yellowstone Lake Project Manager for the Council. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your posting this information. You have captured the essence of the problem. I hope your posting spurs others to comment on the EA. Just for reference, the official website of the East Yellowstone Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Cody, WY has quite a bit of information that your readers might appreciate on the subject. Keep up the great work.

  3. Your posts never fail to impress and this is no exception. I appreciate the passion you have for the natural world, Sir. I'll be posting links to this entry soon on FFSBR, if you don't mind me doing so.


  4. You might think I'm out of my mind , but I'm a saltwater fisherman and I have a question. Are the Park Service biologists sure that the decline in cutthroats is primarily being caused by the lake trout? We've had die offs from water temperatures , parasites and man made causes here in the east before.

    Some saltwater species go through cycles of a decade or so where they will be plentiful at one point and scarce a few years later. This is partly due to spawning success rates in varying water temperatures - the fry do not do well if they are hatched and the water temperature drops or if the water is not warm enough to support the organisms they feed on.

    The only reason I ask is because you state in your article that the cutthroats prefer the top of the water column and that the lakers spend the bulk of their lives deep. It just doesn't sound right to me that a 95% drop in the population could be caused by predation alone.

    I've witnessed some poor decisions and management practices by the Park Service based on unsound science in the past.

  5. BTW , it is a great article. I've just learned to question the Park Service because of some of the things that have happened here on the East Coast.

  6. JM... great question, and, no, the lake trout aren't solely to blame, but they are primarily to blame. Yellowstone Lake, like a lot of Western water bodies, has tested positive for whirling disease. That said, over time, many Western fisheries (the Madison is probably the most notable) have overcome the worst of whirling disease by simply self-selecting the fish that are genetically the strongest. In time, wild trout in the West could overcome the worst of whirling disease (a nasty spore that attacks the skeletal structure in young fish, deforming them and causing them to "whirl") by simply losing the weaker, genetically disposed fish to the disease, leaving stronger more resistant fish behind. But the connection between lakers and cutts is very clear--lake trout populations are blooming, and cutts are FIVE PERCENT of their historic numbers. Couple that with netted lakers found to be primarily preying on cutts, and you have the gist of the problem. So, no, it's not solely a lake trout problem, but it's kind of perfect storm. In time, the fish will overcome whirling disease. Unless we cull lakers, they'll never overcome that problem. And, neither will the predators that depend on cutthroats for survival. Make sense?

  7. Owl... please post away... we need all the help we can get! Thanks, buddy.

  8. I received my TU email yesterday, and actually am compiling a comment in a similar vein (albeit less eloquent) to send to the nps. The amount of ecological importance a single fish contributes never ceases to amaze me. This is on which my comment focuses. I know all the minds over at nps know this, but I don't think it hurts to reiterate the point.

    What an excellent post Chris. It is for reasons like this that I am spending tens of thousands of dollars on my education. I hope that someday I can express my passion only half as well as you can.

  9. Makes perfect sense and thanks for answering so quickly.

    Now I have another question for you : Are the cutts able to spawn successfully every year or do they occasionally have bad years when few fry survive?

    With such a drastic decline, a few bad years with unsuccessful spawns could be devastating to the fish. It may be prudent for the Park Service to look into a stocking program if need be.

  10. JM... another great question! Just like any fish that depends on water levels for survival, Yellowstone cutts are subject to drought and flood. They obviously do better with good amounts of snowmelt surging down the lake's tributaries, but in Yellowstone, there's almost a "fail-safe" for that problem. The Yellowstone River running into and out of the lake almost always has manageable flows, particularly on the outflow, where, in most years, the river is only fordable in a couple of locations. That means that good spawning and rearing habitat is present just about every year, even after a string of drought years (the early 2000s were brutal in the park, but we've had normal, above-normal and near-normal water years over the last six or so winters). I like where your head's at, buddy... it would be great if we could identify a problem that wasn't so intensively devoted to a solution that involves netting wild fish. Unfortunately, the non-native presence of lake trout (think about it--cutts evoloved for eons with NO piscene predators--is it any wonder they're being munched by an introduced predator for which they have no natural defense?) truly is the biggest reason Yellowstone cutts are on the brink in Yellowstone Lake.

    Keep those questions coming...the interest is much appreciated.

  11. I'd say monitor spawning success rates closely , but definitely get the idea out there that a breeding program for the Yellowstone strain of cutthroats could be necessary if the decline continues and netting programs for the lake trout aren't successful. Once a breeding population gets established ,it can be really hard to get rid of them.

    Over the years , I've been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to see several restoration projects for native fish run their course. I always try to keep my ear to the ground when it comes to fisheries management everywhere.

    Here in the east we've seen some great comebacks and also some miserable failures , so I wish you guys the best of luck! Keep up the good work.

  12. Very well said Chris. I know that the Park Service can not say for sure how much the lake trout are responsible, but we've seen the same problem with lakes in Colorado, as well as with Tiger Muskie. Fortunately Tiger Muskie don't reproduce, but they eat a lot of fish before they die or get caught. I will also post a link on my site.

  13. Thank you, sir... very much appreciated.

  14. Great post, blog, and videos! I am a native salmonid FANATIC and I have passed my comments supporting the plan along to the NPS.

    I will add your blog to my roll call - not sure how the blog title will go with my fellow east coasters. : )

    If you need any further help, drop me a line ( With my blog and as chair of West Virginia Council of TU I have a very good distribution list.