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Cutthroat Trout: Fighting for survival in Yellowstone Lake

Latest News: More encouraging news from Yellowstone Lake — more than 191,000 invasive lake trout have been moved by gill-netters this summer, about 10,000 more than by this time in 2012. These numbers are significant in that they were attained with having one more gill-netting boat on the lake. In short, the "catch per unit of effort" is declining — which means the gillnetters are beginning to put a dent in the lake trout population.

The assumption was that this would be good news for native Yellowstone cutthroat trout — and it was. In late August, results of cutthroat trout surveys revealed that for the second consecutive year there has been an increase in juvenile cutthroats. The goal is an increase of 5 percent annually.

GYC has been financially supporting the Park Service and fisheries biologist in this important project, which is designed to restore Yellowstone Lake as a safety-deposit box for the imperiled Yellowstone cutthroat and the 42 species of wildlife that depend on migrating fish for sustenance. Your dollars are making this happen!

Overview: Yellowstone is home to some of the most productive and cherished fisheries in the world. Rivers and streams such as the Madison, Firehole, Yellowstone, Slough Creek and Lamar draw anglers from across the globe each year. Yellowstone’s aquatic icon has always been the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and historically, there was no place better to catch a Yellowstone cutthroat than Yellowstone Lake. Everything changed in 1994, when a fisherman caught a non-native and illegally introduced lake trout.

Yellowstone Lake and its tributaries once supported an estimated 3.5 million Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Since the illegal introduction of lake trout in the 1980s, the cutthroat population in Yellowstone Lake has plummeted. Catch rates for Yellowstone cutthroats have significantly dropped as more and more lake trout are caught every year. The precipitous drop in cutthroat numbers is a result of lake trout predating on cutthroat trout.

In response to the crisis at Yellowstone Lake, the National Park Service began gill-netting lake trout in hopes of keeping the population in check. While this approach has resulted in hundreds of thousands of lake trout being removed from the lake, it has not succeeded in stemming the decline of cutthroat or the continued growth of the lake trout population.

Cutthroat trout are a critical part of the food web in Yellowstone. Biologists have estimated that up to 42 species – from grizzly bears to otters to osprey – rely on Yellowstone cutthroats as a food source. In contrast, lake trout spend most of their lives deep in the lake, inaccessible to most would-be predators. Research on grizzly bears has shown that as cutthroat trout numbers have diminished in spawning tributaries, bears are no longer able to utilize this high calorie food source and have abandoned their historic springtime use of these streams.

The effort to restore Yellowstone Lake’s iconic cutthroat trout population entered a new phase in 2011 when Yellowstone National Park officials made restoring cutthroat a top priority, and a new partnership was formed between the National Park Service, GYC, Trout Unlimited and the National Parks Conservation Association. The summer of 2012 was another banner year, with approximately 300,000 lake trout netted. What's more, cutthroat numbers appear to be increasing for the first time in more than a decade.

To help sustain this success, scientists have surgically implanted radio tags in lake trout to identify key areas of movement and spawning locations. This critical information will make lake trout suppression efforts much more effective and that, in turn, will give Yellowstone cutthroats a better chance to rebound from their current low numbers.

It is our goal to bring back vibrant populations of Yellowstone cutthroat to Yellowstone Lake, a place once considered the “safety-deposit box” for this magnificent fish.

Project Goals: To save Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake and its tributaries. As our climate warms over the coming decades, the Yellowstone lake population of cutthroat trout will become even more crucial to the future of this increasingly rare species. GYC is advocating for a sustained commitment to conserving Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the Park, and especially in Yellowstone Lake.

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OVERVIEW
  • Yellowstone Lake was once considered the safety deposit box for Yellowstone cutthroat trout, with an estimated population of 3.5 million fish before the illegal introduction of non-native lake trout in the 1980s.
  • Over forty other species rely on Yellowstone cutthroat trout as a food source, including grizzly bears, river otters and bald eagles.
  • The Yellowstone Lake Ecosystem will be an important refuge for native trout as climate change makes other habitats less suitable over the coming decades.
  • Yellowstone National Park is making Yellowstone cutthroat trout conservation a top priority, and GYC is here to help.

Contact
Bob Zimmer, Water Program Coordinator

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