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Cutting Deep

Killing one trout to save another

Published online: May 15, 2017 Articles, East Idaho Outdoors
Viewed 6738 time(s)

This is your fault. You screwed up. You should have done something earlier.”

This is how Todd Koel’s day starts. Koel is Yellowstone National Park’s native fish conservation leader. He’s standing on a boat ramp while a park visitor lays into him about the lake trout operation he’s managing. Koel keeps his cool while the visitor spouts. When he’s done ranting, Koel calmly acknowledges there is a lot of passion involved when it comes to the park. Koel’s boss agrees.

“Everything in Yellowstone National Park is a controversy,” says Dan Wenk, Yellowstone National Park superintendent. “And I’m glad it is because it means people care.”

One of the things they care about is what’s going on in Yellowstone Lake. That’s where a commercial fishing crew from the Great Lakes region is catching lake trout with up to 40 miles of netting. This is the epicenter of the angry visitor’s angst. Lake trout are not native to the park. An angler caught the first one in 1994. By mid 2000s, lake trout had eaten 90 to 95 percent of the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the lake. Commercial gillnetting to kill lake trout went gangbusters in 2009.

“The problem is lake trout are like large wolves on the landscape, only in the lake,” Koel says. “Large, highly predatory, fish-eating machines essentially.”

From May through October 300,000 lake trout are netted, killed and dumped back into the lake as decomposing nutrients. The effort is time intensive and wallet consuming costing $2 million annually.

“It is fixable, but it’s not an easy fix. It takes an incredible amount of dedication by a lot of people,” says Dave Sweet, Wyoming Trout Unlimited Yellowstone Lake special project manager. “It’s a very expensive proposition, but it is fixable. We just have to crash that population of lake trout and then figure out a way to keep that population crashed and the cutthroat will come back on their own.”

The crash is close. After seven years of concentrated effort, the fishery is showing signs of change. An estimated 40 other types of wildlife consider cutthroat trout part of their diet. When those fish disappeared, the animals left the lake. Now, eagles are circling and grizzlies are back on the banks.

“The population of lake trout in general is about half of what it was just a few short years ago. That makes me very happy,” Sweet says. “What really makes me happy is the cutthroat population in that same time period has been able to recover and it’s about three times what it was a few short years ago. We’re seeing a lot of progress.”

That progress is piled in black bins on the gillnetting boat. Hundreds of dead lake trout are brought in while more netting goes out. Koel cuts lake trout bellies open and often finds up to eight small cutthroats inside. With so many fish still coming on board, it’s hard to see a population crash coming, but Koel is convinced it’s coming. The operation hit its halfway mark in 2016. Koel has five to seven more years to go, but the tide is already turning, despite the tourists yelling at him on the boat ramp.

“What I really love about it is just knowing we are making positive change at a time when if we weren’t doing some of these things maybe 10, 20, 30 years from now those fish would be gone,” Koel says. “We’re just doing things right at the right time. We are making a big difference that will last long term for a lot of other people into the future.”

You can catch cutthroat trout on flies, but you can’t keep them. You can, however, keep all the lake trout you catch. In fact, you have to. There’s a mandatory kill order on lake trout. Between angler harvest and intense netting, lake trout are taking a punch in the gills.

“The lake trout population is in a steep decline,” Koel says. “Were’ still killing thousands of fish a year so it’s hard from the boat’s perspective, but no doubt the data were collecting says, ‘Yes, you are winning. You just have to keep it up.’”

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