The running total of dead lake trout for 2019 on a recent day read 137,702 on the white board map of Yellowstone Lake outside the backcountry ranger station.
Updated regularly, each casualty added reflected one less predator to feed on cutthroat trout. Each invasive fish removed from Yellowstone National Park’s signature body of water represented one tiny step forward in the gargantuan effort to restore mastery of the native species to the 87,040-acre lake.
Fish by fish, through gillnetting, angling and creative massacres, man was seeking to tilt the balance of nature back to its former status.
This is an expensive, $2-million-per-year challenging task requiring considerable patience. But most recently, it has also generated considerable optimism.
“Basically, we’re crashing the population,” said Todd Koel, Yellowstone’s chief of fisheries, as he pointed to the revolving magic number.
“We’re winning this war.”
One assassinated lake trout at a time.
The native cutthroat trout is a revered fish and a keystone species of the Park’s ecosystem, one prized by anglers and the top of the food chain in the lake.
Since 2012, man has feverishly sought to undo what man probably did – introduce an apex invasive species into Yellowstone Lake, likely transplanted from Lewis Lake.
Seven years into the counterattack, nearly three million lake trout have been eliminated from Yellowstone Lake, as many as 400,000 two years ago alone.
Last year, 297,000 fish were removed, the decline an indicator of progress because it meant there were fewer lake trout available to wipe out.
“We’ve begun to curtail the lake trout population growth,” Koel said.
From May to October boats owned by contractor Hickery Brothers Research of Wisconsin, supplemented by Park Service boats, fight the conservation fight.
Same as on this 60-degree, sunny morning when Yellowstone Lake’s surface was cooperatively placid.
On the lake
At the wheel of a Park Service skiff leaving Bridge Bay Marina, ferrying a small group of observers well out into the lake, Koel alternately expounded on the virtues of Yellowstone Lake’s beauty and 110 miles of shoreline and the colossal struggle to beat back the lake trout.
Fishermen contribute to the effort. Park concessionaire Xanterra offers two- and four-hour guided trips for visitors to visit remote corners of the lake. Each lake trout caught must be kept or killed. Each cutthroat caught must be released.
The assault on lake trout is backed by a $1 million annual donation from Yellowstone Forever, the Park’s official nonprofit partner and by fees paid by visitors.
In 2019, about 6,000 miles of fine mesh gill-net will be set to capture lake trout. Each day there will be 30-40 miles of net in the water, a tag-team operation of four Hickery and two smaller Park Service boats.
Koel rendezvoused on the lake with the Northwester, a 46-footer hauling in fish-clogged nets with hydraulic power.
On board, Captain Tom Short supervised the day’s catch, crew members plucking lake trout by hand from the net.
As Short governed the speed of the net, pickers Cory Dick and Mykael Heimke untangled the fish and Mark Kundzins slit gill plates. It was assembly-line work, spilling blood and slop onto the hard-topped cutting table and aluminum deck.
Periodically, a cutthroat ended up in the mix as by-catch, and swiftly, if still alive, was thrown back into the water.
“Our by-catch is less than five percent,” Short said.
The day was pristine, but rainfall, wind and churning waves made for demanding working conditions other times.
“It’s been a pretty bad year for weather,” Short said. “You just deal with it.”
A restoration effort
The attention-getting, huge Yellowstone Lake program targeting the lake trout’s demise in favor of the cutthroat’s emergence, dovetails with Wyoming Game and Fish policies.
The philosophy of state cutthroat restoration, said Dirk Miller, Game and Fish’s deputy chief of fisheries, is “to be sure that the wildlife that is here will be here for future generations.”
In the past, he said the state did not realize it was inappropriate to mix rainbow trout, brook trout and brown trout with cutthroat trout. For lack of knowledge decades ago, stocking mistakes were made.
As steward of the state’s lands and waters, G&F is now doing its best to restore cutthroat in selected places.
“It’s never been the expectation we could restore them to 100 percent,” Miller said. “We try to balance what’s realistic and frankly, what’s affordable. There are places where it’s no longer viable.”
Miller acknowledges some fishermen wonder why a fuss is made over cutthroat. They may think a trout is a trout, so why bother when all of these rainbow, brook and brown trout are available.
“I do think many people who are anglers don’t understand they weren’t here until we put them here,” Miller said.
Brown trout originated in Europe, he said, and Wyoming’s brook trout came from the eastern United States, from the Adirondack Mountains of New York and Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Cody biologist Jason Burckhardt said much of what G&F does through hatcheries and stocking is to provide good fishing opportunities for resident anglers.
“But we also have anglers who come to fish for our native fish,” Burkhardt said. “The cutthroat, they’re involved in the habitats that have been here for the last 10,000 years. There is something special about having native fish in its native habitat.”
The comparative rarity of cutthroat and its links to the past make it important to Wyoming.
“Scientists want to make sure there are enough to sustain themselves,” Burckhardt said. “They represent the life history that was here, as well. There are a lot of places you can catch rainbow trout.”
Tim Wade, owner of North Fork Anglers in Cody for 35 years, thinks restoration is not enough and fears doom for the finite resource without extreme measures.
In the cutthroat’s local heyday, Wade said 100 cutthroat might be caught and released in a day.
While fly fishermen flocked to the sport with the release of the 1992 movie “A River Runs Through It,” Wade said, they “had no ethics” and careless fish handling led to released, but dead fish.
“And it may have been catch ‘em and grill ‘em,” he said.
Harvest limits were reduced, but not enough and now he foresees danger from too much angling pressure.
“Not everyone deserves to kill a fish,” Wade said. “Every cutthroat caught should go back in the water.”
Wade’s list of save-the-cutthroat ideas endorses harsh, poaching-type hunting fines, banning fishing for pure cutthroat, G&F issuing a no-keeper edict and restriction of fishing to stocked bodies of water only.
“People are going to think I’m crazy,” Wade said.
Trout Unlimited work
Elsewhere, inside Yellowstone, the Park Service has used the poison rotenone to wipe clean entire streams and lakes of other fish and has built keep-out barriers. In places like Soda Butte Creek and in the Madison and Gallatin drainages, less-publicized cutthroat restoration takes place.
These projects are dear to the East Yellowstone Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which sensing cutthroat were fatally threatened in Yellowstone Lake, has provided labor and other assistance.
“Any time you lose a native species, that has consequences,” said Dave Sweet of Cody, who has been tirelessly involved in cutthroat preservation. “You lose something. They existed here for centuries and centuries.
“Forty different species (in the lake) rely on cutthroat for a portion of their diet. Bears, coyotes, a variety of major bird species. Then there are secondary impacts. Bears switched to elk calves as a protein source. Lake trout don’t fill that void in the ecosystem because they are not available in shallow water.”
Sweet said one financial study from years ago suggested cutthroat trout fishing brought in $30 million annually from angling visitors.
Sweet seconded Miller that decades-old stocking projects which seemed like a good idea at the time, became problematic.
Cutthroat restoration is trying to “undo what they did,” he said. “Every agency will tell you some terrible mistakes were made.”
The nets the Northwester pulls in 6-10 feet off the bottom usually catch fish for three or four days. This day, the boat began running on Yellowstone Lake at 5:30 a.m.
Fish crew members removed from the netting were tossed into 22 plastic boxes.
Heimke, in her second season on Yellowstone Lake, said it felt like worthy work and is a good place to spend summers.
“It’s cool,” she said.
Particularly so on perfect-weather production shifts.
The boat’s lake trout count was 1,293 with trailing pelicans and seagulls hoping for leftovers.
“That’s a really good day,” Short said.
In the beginning, Short said, crews threw nets out anywhere and caught tons of lake trout. Now gill-netting is more nuanced, targeting known underwater hangouts.
That, Koel said, is necessary as the conviction takes hold the current unknown number of cutthroat, which can eventually rebound to the estimated 4 million of 1979.
Yellowstone Forever hopes so. The Park Service’s best friend has been a $1 million-a-year backer “from day one,” according to J.D. Davis, the organization’s senior director of campaign and special projects, and is committed to two more years of that level of support.
“It’s the No. 1 conservation priority in the Park,” Davis said. “Hence, that becomes our priority. It’s not just a fish project. It’s an ecosystem challenge.”
Davis said there can be donor fatigue when backers are repeatedly asked for money, but the latest lake trout statistics and word that bears, eagles and other species have returned to the lake for cutthroat emboldens optimism.
“We first thought, ‘There is no way this can work,’” Davis said. “It’s mind-blowing what they’re doing. We hope that within the next three years to see that big lake trout crash.”
Perhaps down to 100,000 lake trout. Aiding the gill-netting is a smorgasbord of methods applied to destroying 14 identified lake trout spawning beds.
Assisted by Montana State University graduate students, the Park Service has tried a number of options, including electroshocking, suction dredging, and in an admitted irony, dumping the lake trout carcasses from the nets onto spawning areas to smother the eggs.
The latest methodology is chemical saturation with analog pellets that stick to rocks and don’t wash away from spawning beds.
“It’s awesome,” Koel said.
This fall, pellets will be dropped from helicopters on two sites and could be a killer substance employed long-term.
No matter how many lake trout are taken from the lake, reproduction stokes the threat of a resurgent predator population.
Even though the population of Yellowstone Lake lake trout has dropped from about 900,000 to 500,000, the Park Service must be perpetually vigilant.
“If something gets introduced,” Koel said, “it’s probably going to be here forever.”
That means gill-netting, poison pills, or other technology also will be part of the Park Service arsenal wielded against lake trout forever.