Cutthroat Conservation: Saving the Yellowstone Ecosystem


Yellowstone cutthroat trout deserve intense focus.
(Photo: Patrick Cooney)

An elusive Lamar River Yellowstone cutthroat trout was the target for my only fishing day in Yellowstone National Park, and an early autumn sow-bellied beauty was eyeing my offering.  As my eyes intensely focused on the golden prize, and my finger balanced delicately on the line like a needle reading the delicate bumps on a vinyl record, I reached my moment of enlightenment.

The splendor of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley.
(Photo: Patrick Cooney)

I had lost track of time and weather when a low rumble disturbed my intense focus.  Thunder rolled down Druid Peak forcing my eyes away from the crystal water and into the cobalt sky.  With no clouds and no lightening, how could there be thunder?  I spun to investigate further just in time to witness an immense herd of American bison emerge from the tree line and pour into the Lamar Valley in phenomenal display, allowing me to contemplate the possibility that where there is thunder there may not always be lightening…or is there?  Could it be that the incredible conservation mission of the National Parks was the spark of lightening that allowed for these great herds of “thunder beasts” to once again roam this vast expanse?  Can we continue this conservation mission and provide success stories for other natural spaces and native wildlife?  Absolutely!

“Thunder beasts” bask along the Lamar River on that unforgettable day.
(Photo: Patrick Cooney)
   The National Park Service was established to:
“…conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the
wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in      
such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for
the enjoyment of future generations.”       –Organic Act of 1916

Yellowstone was the first National Park ever created, and active conservation efforts are always on display, with some more visible than others.  For those driving on the Grand Loop Road around West Thumb, or those visiting the fishing pot geyser, one need only look out across Yellowstone Lake to witness an incredible effort to eradicate an invasive predator that threatens to decimate the entire population of a spectacular native species.

Something sinister lurks below the surface of Yellowstone Lake.
(Photo: Patrick Cooney)
   Yellowstone Lake was home to the largest population of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, yet this vast body of water has more recently become home to a sinister invader: lake trout.  Lake trout are voracious and long lived predators that reach immense sizes, especially when they have access to fat laden trout as prey.  Introductions of lake trout in Lake Tahoe on the border of California and Nevada led to the elimination of native Lahontan cutthroat trout, and there are worries that without an incredible effort, the same fate will be extended to its Yellowstone cousin.
Lake Trout are voracious predators that devour other trout
when introduced into systems. (Source)
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout were eliminated from

Lake Tahoe by non-native Lake Trout. (Source)


Yellowstone Lake commands much of the landscape
in Yellowstone National Park.  (Source)

Humans have a history of altering landscapes and ecosystems, as well as introducing non-native species.  It is difficult to understand in a place that remains so wild and pristine as Yellowstone why someone would introduce something unnatural and devastating.  Because of the lake trout introduction, the balance of the ecosystem is now in jeopardy.  Similar to reversing the near annihilation of the native bison herds, the project currently under way to prevent the annihilation of cutthroat trout, and return Yellowstone Lake to a more natural ecosystem, is indeed a noble and worthy cause.

    The warning on the flier I received upon entrance to Yellowstone explained “Many Visitors Have Been Gored by Buffalo”.  Yet, without a knowledge of historical events, the vivid graphic could have easily lead me to believe that the American buffalo had once nearly driven us to extinction, instead of the other way around.  In contrast, there is no confusion as to who is the agressor in the case between cutthroat and lake trout.  Fisheries biologists are clear that Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations are declining rapidly, and reversing this trend is critical because of the important roles they serve in Yellowstone National Park.
   Yellowstone cutthroat trout are not only valued by anglers, but they are also important ecologically.  Besides generating income for the park, cutthroat are an integral part of the natural ecosystem, providing food for bears, birds, and other critters, whereas lake trout do not supply these same services.  In comparison to cutthroat, lake trout live deeper in the lake and do not migrate into tributary streams to spawn, and are therefore unavailable to the other native animals as prey.
Yellowstone cutthroat trout not only provide angling opportunities,
but are also a major part of the ecosystem.  (Source)
Yellowstone Grizzlies rely on
Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout
migrations. (Source)

Grizzly bear populations in Yellowstone are facing a multitude of problems, and a decline in Yellowstone cutthroat trout availability is near the top of the list.  Therefore, by saving the cutthroat, the biologists are not only helping the native trout, but they are also ensuring the conservation of all native wildlife within the ecosystem.

   Yellowstone fisheries biologists have been on the offense for more than a decade, setting gill and trap nets thousands of times in lake trout spawning areas and promoting the harvest of lake trout by anglers.  Commercial fisherman have also been hired, and they are all putting a significant dent in the lake trout population, with recent annual catches in the hundreds of thousands.
Biologists surgically implant Lake Trout with tags to
help track down spawning sites in Yellowstone Lake. (Source)

Private funding from organizations, like the recent $1 million donation from the Yellowstone Park Foundation to launch the recently developed Native Fish Conservation Program, plays a significant role in allowing this effort to take place.  Trout Unlimited has also thrown a huge hand in the fight.  High tech transmitters purchased with funding from Trout Unlimited have been surgically implanted into lake trout that are then released and tracked as “Judas” fish in an effort to find and target additional lake trout spawning aggregations.  Additionally, efforts like the Blogger Tour 2012 (sponsored by Trout Unlimited, Simms, The Outdoor Blogger Network, and Yellowstone Park Foundation) increase public awareness of the important conservation efforts made by collaborators.  Cooperation amongst multiple agencies and conservation organizations, as well as the public, is critical to success in large scale efforts like these.

Number of Lake Trout removed from Yellowstone Lake
since being discovered in 1994.  (Source)
Hopes are this sign is not just what visitors see on their way out,
but is also the current status of the Lake Trout population
in Yellowstone National Park.  (Photo: Patrick Cooney)

Complete eradication of lake trout in Yellowstone Lake is not the expectation, especially considering the size of Yellowstone Lake and the projected population size of lake trout in the hundreds of thousands.  The rare example of a complete eradication is not without controversy, like that of northern pike removal in Lake Davis, California, where the use of a chemical fish killer created issues.  But in the end, these controversies are resolved because of the common goals of conserving native trout populations and removing the invasive predator to restore the ecosystem.

   Similarly, people agree that the future of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake depends upon lake trout eradication efforts.  While lake trout will most likely persist in the lake indefinitely, it is the duty and purpose of the National Park Service to ensure the long term survival of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout.  Drastically reducing the numbers of lake trout and keeping them low will be a huge success.
The rise of a Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout to a fly
is the experience of a lifetime.  (Photo: Patrick Cooney)
   Future plans call for increased netting efforts for lake trout in Yellowstone Lake as well as the removal of lake trout from other rivers and streams in the park.  Without these increased efforts, lake trout populations will continue to rise, future generations of anglers may be deprived of a truly unique experience, and the flora and fauna of the ecosystem will continue to suffer.
You can help preserve the legacy of Yellowstone
cutthroat trout for generations to come!
(Photo: Patrick Cooney)

   Just like conserving the bison from extinction, the challenge to save the Yellowstone cutthroat trout population in Yellowstone Lake is surmountable.  Their fate is largely dependent on the effort of dedicated biologists and park staff, but also from the support of people like you.  You can be the spark to create another conservation success story.  Spread the word, donate to contributing organizations like Trout Unlimited or the Yellowstone Park Foundation, or why not visit the park and harvest a lake trout for yourself?

   In this vast wilderness set aside as a pristine place for all to enjoy, these efforts are just the nudge the Yellowstone cutthroat need to continue thriving in the ecosystem and to provide incredible moments of enlightenment for future generations of anglers and park visitors.
Patrick Cooney
The Teton Range displaying Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout colors.  (Photo: Patrick Cooney)


“This is my submission for the Trout Unlimited, Simms, the Yellowstone Park Foundation and the Outdoor Blogger Network – Blogger Tour 2012 contest.”

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve Zakur says:

    Well said Patrick. I didn't get a chance to fish the Lamar when I was there but you couldn't ask for a prettier location in which to tempt a trout.

  2. David Nash says:

    That was an excellent post. Honestly. Good luck in the contest 🙂

  3. Susan Cooney says:

    Wow! I felt as if I had ventured to Yellowstone through your magnificent describtive words and stunning photographs. Proud I am of your writing of this great concern for Yellowstone cutthroat trout. My dream would be for us to flyfish the Lamar someday together. Congratulations on entering the contest. In my heart you have already won.

  4. Thanks Steve!! I live out East in North Carolina, and have only been to Yellowstone this one time a few years back. The Lamar Valley was amazing, and if you make it back, definitely think about fishing the Lamar River. Best of luck in your adventures!

  5. Thanks David, glad you liked it. Feel free to check out some of the other posts…I bet you would like the very first post on this blog where I wrote about the time I stocked trout from an airplane. Cutthroat in Yellowstone is a nice topic to write about because conservation just make sense. Something with such a large impact on the ecosystem is always worth the fight!

  6. Thank you for always reading and supporting me in my writing!

  7. Donna says:

    Patrick, you've had an excellent week in essay world! I really thought you'd take the coleman prize but have to admit I'm glad you didn't (as much as I love my old tent, that easy up will sure improve my camping experience) This is another beautifully written and greatly educational piece. Congratulations.

  8. Donna, I could not be happier for you and Caden. Congratulations on a wonderfully written piece yourself…I laughed out loud thinking about sliding to the corner of a tent over the course of the night…maybe Coleman should put velcro on the bottom of tents and outside of sleeping bags!
    Thanks for reading and the words of encouragement. Keep up the great writing yourself, and I look forward to reading about you and Caden out camping in your new tent.

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