When I was a kid growing up on my parent's farm in upstate New York I heard some of the old timers talking about wrongheaded decisions. The idea was that the decision was foolish and unwise. Over the years I have made my share of wrongheaded decisions and I have certainly witnessed many others that have made similar mistakes. Recently the fisheries folks at Yellowstone National Park made just such a decision involving the management of salmonoids. Before you decry my conclusions I urge you to look at the facts.
When the first explorers pushed through the wilderness that would ultimately become the world's first National Park they found a variety of lakes and streams. Some of them contained several species of fish and some were completely devoid of fish life. The Firehole River above Firehole Falls was devoid of native fish, the Gibbon River above the falls contained Longnose dace and Mottled sculpin, and Shoshone Lake was devoid of fish. This is only a partial list of the lakes and streams in Yellowstone and many of the other waters were either devoid of fish or had limited populations.
"Only 17 of the more than 150 lakes in Yellowstone National Park are believed to have contained fish when the park was established. About 40 percent of all the park's waters were fishless, including almost the entire lengths of the Firehole, Gardner, Gibbon, Lewis, and Bechler rivers. Yet the physical character of Yellowstone's waters was found to be generally favorable for fish habitat. A field study in 1890 revealed the presence of abundant insect and crustacean food well-suited for sustaining fish." Yellowstone Science – Vol. 4, No. 4, A Grand Experiment , Mary Ann Franke, Pg. 2
Thus the Grand Experiment began with the establishment of hatcheries within the park boundaries and the stocking of both native and non-native fish became common practice. Not only did they attempt to introduce new species of trout they also planted black bass, yellow perch and Atlantic salmon. Fortunately those exotics did not succeed, but brown, rainbow, brook and lake trout did become established in many of the park's waters. By 1902 brook, brown, rainbow and lake trout had been planted in several of the waters within the park.
As early as 1889 7,000 brook, brown and rainbow trout from a Michigan hatchery were planted in the barren waters of the Firehole, Gibbon and Gardner Rivers, and the east fork of the Gardner above Osprey Falls received 1,000 cutthroat trout for the Snake River in Idaho. In 1890 42,000 Loch Levan brown trout and Von Behr brown trout went into Lewis and Shoshone lakes. Both these lakes were barren of fish before they were stocked. Mountain whitefish from Montana were placed in Twin Lakes and the Yellowstone River below the Lake. For some reason that we do not understand the mountain whitefish, which are native to many waters in Montana and Wyoming, did not survive in the Yellowstone River above the falls. In order to produce more fish, hatcheries were built and operated in many areas of the Park.
"The last fish stocking for the benefit of anglers occurred in 1955; since then, sanctioned fish planting has been limited to experimental restoration of rare native species." Yellowstone Science, Volume 5, Winter 1997, The Grand Experiment – The Tide Turns in the 1950: Part II, Mary Ann Frank This means that there have been no non-native fish species planted in any of the park waters in Yellowstone for over 50 years.
In 2013 a new regulation instituted was instituted in Yellowstone National Park that related to the "non-native" species of trout found in various park waters. These changes "have been made to better align the regulations with the park's Native Fish Conservation Plan." This change eliminated the limit on non-native fish in all park waters except the Madison and Firehole Rivers, the Gibbon River below Gibbon Falls and Lewis and Shoshone Lakes. Rainbow and brook trout caught in the Lamar River drainage must be harvested in order to protect native cutthroat trout in the headwater reaches of the drainage. This includes Slough and Soda Butte Creeks. However, all native fish found in Yellowstone waters including cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, and Arctic grayling must be released unharmed. Press release, Yellowstone National Park, May 24, 2013
Now it should be noted that rainbow and brook trout have been found in the Lamar River drainage for over 100 years but cutthroat trout continue to be the predominate species of trout in this drainage. I have personally fished the Lamar drainage for over 40 years and catching a rainbow trout in these waters has always been rare. In fact, in the last 20 years I have not caught a rainbow trout in any of these waters. I will not claim that the cutthroat trout in the Lamar drainage are "pure strain" cutthroat since they may in fact contain some genetic material from ancestral cross-breeding with rainbows, but for the purpose of the current regulations they are cutthroat trout and thus protected. In addition, I will not claim that there are no rainbow trout in these waters but they must be very uncommon. If the rainbow trout have not replaced the cutthroat trout in the Lamar drainage after 100+ years it seems highly unlikely that that they represent any danger to the present cutthroat population.
In 1916 the United States Congress passed The National Park Service Organic Act, which established the National Park Service and basically set forth the orders for the managers of the National Parks in the United States. This act reads in part: "The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified ………which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein …………..as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." It would seem that the people charged with the oversight of the wildlife in Yellowstone National Park have decided that some wildlife is more worthy of protection than other wildlife, since the trout species that they are attempting to eliminate are certainly wild trout that have existed within the confines of Yellowstone for more than a century.
As an example of the convoluted policies regarding the management of wildlife within Yellowstone I would site the following example. One of the arguments put forth by the Park Service concerning the removal of the lake trout from Yellowstone Lake is that, because they spend most of their lives deep in the lake, they are not available to provide food for the fish-eating predators that have traditional relied on the Yellowstone cutthroat for food. Now the Park Service is urging anglers to kill and remove fish that are readily available to the same group of predators but are deemed "unworthy" because they are not considered to be a "native" species. It seems inconsistent with park policy that, on one hand we are trying to protect one species of fish for the benefit of fish-eating predators and remove another species of fish that provides food for those same fish-eating species. Further, I would suggest that if a person who is born within the borders of the United States is automatically a citizen then a fish that hatched from eggs laid in the gravel of a stream within the confines of Yellowstone National Park is a native and thus should be protected and preserved as required in the Organic Act of 1916.
I concur with the Park Service that the lake trout in Yellowstone Lake represent a threat to the native cutthroat and that steps should be taken to control the their numbers. I have no desire to see the Park Service plant rainbows, browns, brook or any other species of fish not currently found within the Park but I decry as wrongheaded any program that seeks to turn back the clock and risk destroying a viable population. While it may have been a mistake to plant non-native species of fish within the park however, two wrongs do not make a right, and the current policy in Yellowstone National Park concerning viable non-native fish populations is just another wrong.
As a side bar to this discussion there is another problem that has recently been discovered with the park policy of removal by anglers of non-native fish species. On a recent trip to Soda Butte Creek my fishing partner was landing a respectable cutthroat trout when another angler approached to watch him land the fish. When the fish was in the net the other angler said, "That's a real nice brown trout!" I wonder how many "brown trout" that angler caught and killed that day?