|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.
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.
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.