Picking & Choosing: Trout removal project sparks conflict in Yellowstone

A River Runs Red

In early September, Soda Butte Creek turned a shade of red that one couple referred to as “a stream of merlot.” Others noticed the change as well. Sarah Ksicinski, an employee at the north entrance of the park noticed a “faint blue-purple hue” while she was fishing.

Earlier this year, a multi-agency team, consisting of the National Park Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Gallatin-Custer National Forest, decided to move forward on the Soda Butte Creek Native Fish Restoration Project, an ambitious plan to kill all of the fish in the upper portion of the creek, then restock it with genetically pure cutthroat trout. Rotenone, a naturally occurring chemical that kills fish and other oxygen breathing organisms by inhibiting cellular respiration, was the poison of choice.

River discoloration was caused by biologists administering potassium permanganate, a detoxifying agent that was used to neutralize the Rotenone.

The project was proposed in April, and public comments were received through two hearings in Livingston and Cooke City. In total the park service received 56 pieces of correspondence as additional comment. The slim majority of them were opposed to the Rotenone treatment, with a significant number in support. After responding to the comments of local anglers, the multi-agency team decided to add a crucial step to the plan: the capture of the cutthroat that were living in the stream, prior to the treatment.

Todd Koel, supervisor for the Yellowstone Fisheries and Aquatics Program, explained that the National Park Service has an obligation to restore the natural fisheries wherever they can.

“As the Park Service, it’s our job to preserve the native species we have and restore the natural ecosystem. Rotenone is the only tool we have to fully restore cutthroat populations,” said Koel.

Despite significant public opposition, the team went ahead with the poisoning and restocking of the creek on Aug. 28, 2015.


Altering Agenda: Overview of Park Fisheries

According to the National Park Service, “maintenance of natural biotic associations or, where possible, restoration to pre-Euro-American conditions have emerged as primary goals” for managing fish in Yellowstone. However, this has not always been the case.

Before the influential Leopold Report in 1963 ethically restructured the way wildlife was managed, before the National Park Service even existed, park administration was stocking waters with fish. Many of these areas were originally fishless, including isolated alpine lakes, tributaries that were blocked off due to natural obstacles or streams influenced by hot springs and geothermal activity that were unhealthy for cutthroat.

Park superintendents entrusted the U.S. Fish Commission to stock as many waters as they could. Fishing was viewed as both an enjoyable activity and as legitimate nourishment for employees and visitors alike. When the Army assumed control of the park around the turn of the century they furthered the progress of sustenance fishing as a viable wildlife management philosophy. Species that fed on trout were viewed as competition to the needs of the people, and often were eliminated.

In 1930 the Park Service constructed a hatchery on Lake Yellowstone. The facility, operated by the U.S Department of Fish and Wildlife, was the largest supplier of wild cutthroat trout to planting projects throughout the country. As early as 1936, the NPS stopped planting fish in waters that did not already have them and “opposed hatchery construction in the park’s lakes and streams.” After research showed that harvesting eggs was significantly hindering natural reproduction, the practice was ended in the 50’s. By the year 1959, waters were no longer being stocked with fish.

Since then, the NPS has been evolving a ‘land-ethic’ that revolves around maintaining the integrity of ecosystems and working to restore the land to the way it was before “Euro-American settlement.”

Two Sides to the River

Some anglers are hesitant to support the Park Service’s philosophical motivation. After all, 48 percent of the waters in Yellowstone did not have fish before the government began stocking them.

Richard Durcot, who operates a small hotel in Cooke City, has been fishing the waters in and around Yellowstone since 1990 and is strongly against the poisoning in Soda Butte Creek.

“It is a great bureaucratic decision, killing fish for nothing … a waste of money,” Durcot expounded, “I love to see families come here to fish the streams. Children get so excited when they get a fish, it is wonderful. Brookies are fun to catch and make a great meal; I don’t understand why they are poisoning the stream to get rid of them.”

Others seemed to be more moderate in their opposition. Bob Jacklin, owner and operator of Jacklin’s Fly Shop in West Yellowstone, feels there is not much that can be done to stop agencies from using Rotenone in rivers and lakes.

“It’s not what I like, but it’s happening,” Jacklin explained, “Everybody is on board, from Trout Unlimited to the Park Service. I just run a tackle shop here in West Yellowstone. Who am I to say we should keep the brookies and rainbows?”

The conflict presents itself quite clearly: some fisherman see a significant value in the non-native trout and point out how well they are doing in the streams and rivers, while the government is trying to restore the natural ecosystem and also prevent the cutthroat from being listed as an endangered species.

Ken Frazer, a biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the lead agency in the Soda Butte project said that, “If cutthroat are listed as a threatened or endangered species, we lose a lot of the control of how they can be managed.”

“Our goal is to not just protect these fish, but to provide a recreational cutthroat fishery for future generations.” Frazer continued, “we’ve got projects going on all over the state. They are prioritized, and we plan to do them one at a time.”

The Soda Butte Project was of high importance and urgency, according to Clint Sestrich, fisheries biologist for the Custer-Gallatin National Forest.

“Soda Butte is a high priority because it is in such a large inter-connected basin, also because it at a high elevation, which is important as those areas are more resistant to the effects of climate change,” Sestrich explained, “we wanted to eliminate risk that the non-native trout would contaminate or even eliminate the core cutthroat population in the Lamar.”

Sestrich also noted the difficulty many biologists and wildlife managers have reaching out to the public. “We usually aren’t the best PR people,” he chuckled, “but in all seriousness there is a lot of misunderstanding. I feel like many people think we are on some sort of conquest to put cutthroat everywhere. That is just not the case.”

“There has been significant habitat improvement on Soda Butte,” Sestrich continued, “In many ways; everything that could be done to improve the habitat has been done. The main thing that is limiting cutthroat is non-native fish.”

“Look at what happened in Smith Creek on the Shields River,” Sestich said, “It went from entirely cutthroat to all brook trout. We have done samplings up there, and haven’t found any cutthroat.”


The Big Picture

Dwaine Hackman, who was born and raised in Livingston, has been fishing the waters around Cooke City for over 30 years. Hackman appreciates brook trout, but understands why fish management has changed over time.

“Fishing is better now than it was 30 years ago. Everybody killed fish back then. One time I saw a man get stopped at the gate coming out of the park. He had 55 cutthroats on a line. I love the catch and release fishing and barbless hooks; you can catch big and beautiful fish, even though now-a-days there are more people fishing than back then,” Hackman remembered.

Hackman currently resides in Bozeman, but spends much of his summer around Cooke City. “I was camped at the Soda Butte Campground right outside of Cooke when they were doing the creek poisoning. I saw the whole process,” he said.

“It was a shame they had to kill so many fish, but in the long run it may be well worth it,” Hackman said, “Look at some of the lakes they poisoned a while back, there are monster cutthroat in them now.”

Hackman was concerned with the cost of the project, and noted the equipment, vehicles, and manpower: “It seemed like an expensive project. We didn’t have a problem with the non-native fish, for me it seems like a lot of money spent in one direction, when there are so many other ways it could have been used.”

Frazer emphasized how Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks views the treatment as a savings rather than an expense. “We have spent about $18,000 to $20,000 on electrofishing Soda Butte each summer for about the past 20 years,” Frazer said, “Using Rotenone, we have to do two treatments and then we are done. That represents a huge annual savings for our agency.”

Sestrich further stressed the economic savings of the project, “We work for the public; people are concerned about their tax dollars. Electro-fishing is a huge cost: eight days to do the whole Rotenone treatment versus fourteen days every single year to electro-fish. When the logistics of equipment and manpower are factored in, the Rotenone is the most cost-effective method we have to restore the native cutthroat population.”

Rotenone is a commonly used chemical for removal of fish in lakes, streams and rivers across the country. Some groups, such as stopriverkilling.org, take serious issue with the repeated poisoning of waters in the wilderness, especially national parks and wildlife reserves.

The NPS notes how Rotenone is EPA approved, and is neutralized with potassium permanganate. “We dilute it in parts per billion for treatment, and neutralize it so it will harmlessly dissipate over time,” said Koel, “There is so much misinformation out there, but if you read the literature and review the studies, you can see that when used properly, Rotenone is a relatively safe and effective tool for native trout restoration.”

Sarah Ksicinski, the park ranger who works at the northeast gate, has noted mixed public opinions from visitors and locals alike. “I’ve noticed some people are totally against using Rotenone, but others are really supportive of restoring the cutthroat.” Ksicinski has a background in natural resource conservation and feels the project was a necessary step for the trout, “The project has already been completed, the difficult part will be getting the information out there to educate people.”