Wild Trout Lose Again

This article was written in early 2011 as Yellowstone Park was finalizing their fisheries management plan.  I think it raises important points, and to this day I stand firmly behind the sentiments expressed in it.  I fully understand that every generation of fisheries managers thinks that by implementing their particular management actions that they are doing the right thing.  History, however,  proves many of them to be wrong.  In this instance, the decisions to destroy functioning wild trout populations deserved far more public discussion than they were given.  As of March, 2012, we know that Goose Lake has been poisoned.  


Last month the National Park Service released their Native Fish Conservation Plan, a document that will guide management of the fisheries in Yellowstone Park. Prior to the adoption of this plan, public comment was sought through a variety of venues. Of the thousands of pieces of correspondence received by the Park Service, less than 3% of them objected to the proposed plan. My comments were among those.

I objected to the plan, in part, because one of their projects proposes the eradication of rainbow trout from Trout Lake, a small lake in Yellowstone’s northeast corner that is also home to a fine population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout. This eradication would take place under the guise of “native species management”, that trendy management principle currently running amok in seemingly all agencies that deal with natural resources. In the judgment of the Park Service, the rainbows of Trout Lake present an intolerable threat to the genetic purity of the cutthroats. Therefore, in the name of native species management, they must be eliminated.

I am not opposed to native species. I understand and appreciate their value and role in the world. Especially those of the Yellowstone cutthroat. But that doesn’t mean I blindly accept actions proposed on their behalf that ignore the realities of the world as they are today. More tellingly, I will not support policies that refuse to acknowledge the arbitrariness of the decision-making process used in establishing management directives.

You see, a species is native only by definition. A point in time is selected—invariably the one which coincides with the appearance of Euro-American man—and lo and behold, everything in place prior to that is “native”. Okay. That’s a convenient way to look at it. But it’s also arbitrary, and strikes me as arrogant. That’s because a definition like this places humans front and center in the discussion, while at the same time attempting to leave us entirely out of the picture. I don’t think we can have it both ways.

There are other problems involved with this line of thinking. Using the arrival time of Euro-American man as the basis for nativity (as the Park is wont to do) implies that at that point the world was perfect. So perfect, in fact, that we must return there. Well, alright. That’s a philosophical issue.  I may believe we should return Yellowstone to a point millions of years ago when there were no fish, period. You may favor returning it to, say, 1970, thus defining nativity in yet another way. There’s no right or wrong here.  The important thing is to acknowledge the inherent arbitrariness of our decisions.

Attempting to resurrect a particular point in time also assumes that, if successful, the world will honor it.  That it will heed our wishes, remain put.  But the world is ever-changing, with or without us. The existence of a time when all was perfect—a time that would endure ad infinitum—is pure fantasy. In the case of rainbow trout, given enough time they would likely have made it here on their own. Just so happens we got here first and brought them along.

Which raises another important matter: the presence of man. Our role in the world—good or bad, like it or not—is to act as an agent of change. We alter everything in the world we come into contact with. It’s what we’ve always done. If history is any guide, it’s what we’ll always do. Among the changes we’ve wrought, obviously, are the relocation of fish species.

Back to Trout Lake. Wild rainbow trout have resided there since the 1950’s, when the lake was used as a hatchery for their propagation. Throughout that time, cutthroat have also been present in the lake. To this day—some fifty years later—both the cutthroat and rainbows remain genetically pure. The question naturally arises: Why must the rainbows go? Well, because in the Park Service’s estimation, they now present a threat to the genetic integrity of the cutthroat. Yes, a threat so serious that every rainbow must be killed. In this day and age, with wild trout populations under fire from many directions, that’s a pretty serious charge.

So forgive me for objecting to this part of the Park’s plan. But I’ll side with the evidence on the ground, thank you very much.  And that evidence shows two species of trout, each genetically intact. This after better than fifty years of co-existence. I’ll take that over the voices crying “serious threat”.

In today’s “enlightened age” it’s unlikely we would plant rainbow trout on top of cutthroat, or stock brown or brook trout where none existed before. But the fact is, that’s what we did. And if these other species aren’t “native” to Yellowstone, they’re certainly naturalized. They’ve been in the Park longer than any human being has been alive. In many places, they are supremely adapted to current environmental conditions—conditions, it’s worth noting, that are significantly different than existed one-hundred-plus years ago. These fully functioning wild trout populations—and they’re numerous—are not worth sacrificing for the sake of policies buttressed by suspect philosophical underpinnings. Attempting to turn the clock back to some idealized time in history by substituting one species of fish for another is, in my opinion, misguided.

I think a better approach, one which respects our role in the world, is to recognize the value of all the trout species in Yellowstone Park. By all means, let’s take care of the “natives”. But not at the expense of other trout species (exception noted below). Sentencing to death wild, self-sustaining populations because they fail to meet today’s standards of “nativity” resists justification.

I only wish it wasn’t too late to chart another course.

Notes:  Examples of other Park projects that I objected to are the building of a barrier on Grayling Creek and the poisoning of the entire Gibbon River above Gibbon Falls.

I do support all efforts of the Park to remove Lake trout from Yellowstone Lake. This is a special circumstance because of the predator/prey relationship that exists between the Lake trout and Yellowstone cutthroat (as opposed the the situations in Lewis and Shoshone Lakes, where brown trout and lake trout simply co-exist).