Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yellowstone NP: Native Fish Conservation Plan

When it comes to favorite places to fish, Yellowstone National Park should be high on everyone's list and I know its definitely one of mine.  From small backcountry streams full of feisty trout that slam dry flies to big mature rivers where the fish can be measured in pounds instead of inches, not to mention the numerous stillwater options, Yellowstone offers something for everyone. 

Unfortunately, much of the Yellowstone ecosystem is in danger.  Back sometime in the 1980s, lake trout were introduced to Yellowstone Lake (how remains somewhat a mystery, at least according to the Park Service, although plenty of theories abound).  By the time they were noticed, a well-established spawning population was in place.  Since then, the numbers of lake trout have skyrocketed while the native Yellowstone Cutthroat have been decimated. 

I was reminded of all this the other day from James Marsh.  In his daily journal article, he mentioned that a new Fish Conservation Plan was on the table and open for discussion.  I checked out the plan, did a lot of reading, and came to a few conclusions.  First, I suggest you read the plan for yourself

Generally, I am all for native species restoration although sometimes it is difficult for me to get too excited.  Lynn Camp Prong here in the Smokies is a great example.  I'll be glad to fish for brookies on such a good-sized Park stream but am sad about all the years I'm missing out fishing while the water is closed for the restoration.  In Yellowstone, I feel that a lot of effort has been put into the Environmental Assessment resulting in generally sound conclusions.  Overall I agree whole-heartedly in the need to help the native fisheries, particular Yellowstone Lake.  The current work done to control lake trout is just not sufficient.  Clearly something needs to be done, and I applaud the Park Service for taking on the daunting project. 

My one concern with the plan is for the Gibbon River.  There are currently many options throughout the Park to fish for native cutthroat.  According to the Park's Fish Conservation Plan, the upper Gibbon was historically fishless.  David Starr Jordan did the first survey of Yellowstone fish in 1889 and published his findings in 1891. "He described 40% of the park as the 'Area Without Trout,' including the upper reaches of the Bechler, Fire Hole, Gibbon, and Gardner Rivers" (Fish Conservation Plan, p. 4). 

In the current plan under consideration, non-native brown, rainbow and brook trout would be removed from the upper Gibbon (that means from Gibbon Falls, upstream through all the beautiful meadow stretches).  In their place, the Park service would stock West Slope Cutthroat and Arctic Grayling until a self-sustaining population was in place.  While native trout restoration is admirable, and I generally support it, this project cannot be called a restoration.  According to dictionary.com, a restoration is a "return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition."  Based on the Park Service's own research, this plan for the Gibbon cannot be called a restoration as historically the upper Gibbon did NOT have trout. 

Throughout Yellowstone National Park one can fish for cutthroat trout.  Right now, the more immediate concern in my opinion would be to find a way to remove rainbows from Slough, Soda Butte, and even the Lamar as well as increase efforts to reduce lake trout numbers in Yellowstone Lake.  The Park has precious few quality brown trout fisheries and removing the Gibbon from the list would be heart breaking.  Craig Matthews, in the Yellowstone Fly-Fishing Guide, mentions that the meadow sections of the Gibbon contain large brown trout and offers opportunities to stalk wary brown trout that you won't get on many other Park streams. 

Clearly the Gibbon is a special fishery which I would hate to see disrupted.  Since the premise of a restoration is not applicable to this stream, I would recommend sending in comments to the Park Service to that effect. Here is what said in my comment:

I support the proposal with one exception: I believe that the Gibbon River should stay as it is, except possibly above Virginia Cascades.  The Gibbon is currently one of the best rivers in the Park for catching brown trout (including very large browns) and should be left as is. Removal of the brown trout fishery would have a detrimental effect on area businesses that cater to fly fisherman.  Additionally, within the Conservation Plan Assessment, it refers to a quote from David Starr Jordan from 1891 which indicates that the upper Gibbon was at that point fishless.  It seems fairly obvious (unless I'm missing something here) that the Gibbon project is not a restoration to the original conditions.  With that in mind, I prefer to come to Yellowstone to catch brown trout in the Gibbon and not cutthroat.  Remove the Gibbon from consideration for the project and I will support everything else whole-heartedly. 
Again, if you care about fishing in Yellowstone, I urge you to take the time to read the Native Fish Conservation Plan Environmental Assessment.  Come to your own conclusions and send in your comments


  1. Anonymous11:21 AM

    Browns, Brooks and Rainbows can be caught in nearly every state in the US but not Westslope Cutthroat trout. WCT need to be introduced above the upper falls on the Gibbon river because they are indigenous to the watershed of the Gibbon river.

  2. Very good point although I can't find any source to say exactly how high up the Gibbon these species originally existed. In the quote from the Park Service proposal it seems that the upper Gibbon was historically without Cutts... I've searched quite a bit for more on this and if you have any information (links, etc) on exactly where they originally were found, I would very much like to see them... Thanks for taking the time to look over the plan and caring about native species!

  3. Charles Brooks talks about the lack of native trout in both the Gibbon and the Firehole above their falls in his book, The Living River.

    I understand what you're saying about the upper stretches of the Gibbon, but I can't say I'd be any less excited to fish for cutts than browns.

    The plus I can see to removing browns and replacing them with Yellowstone Cutts would be having a cutthroat fishery on the Western side of the park. The bulk of the cutty fishing tends to be in the NE corner of the park.

  4. I am not entirely familiar with all the in and outs of this project, nor do I pretend to be a fisheries expert; however, it seems that if the fish were not in the upper Gibbon 120+ years ago, is it possible that the fish cannot survive there? What prevented WCT from establishing populations there before? This being said, I would like to see more populations of Westslope and Yellowstone Cutts, but I do have issues with piscicide too. It seems there would be better way.

  5. Anonymous1:49 AM

    The only native fish in the upper Gibbon River (above Gibbon Falls) were mottled sculpins. Will YNP fisheries management salvage the descendants of those original sculpins when they use the piscicide rotenone to rid the stream of non-natives? Don't count on it.