Don't envy Todd Koel these days. The lead fisheries expert at Yellowstone National Park, Koel is proposing to kill members of a highly revered cutthroat trout population in a bid to save another, less populated, variety.
Koel was handed a bonanza last summer when word reached him of an unnamed creek in the park that, tests would prove, had a pretty good population of a genetically pure strain of westslope cutthroat trout. The news was earthshaking, as fisheries experts had thought Yellowstone's last pure population of westslope cuts had been lost two years ago.
But to save, and expand, this new-found population of westslope cuts, Koel must kill a pocket population of Yellowstone cutthroats, an act that amounts to heresy to those worried that the lake trout infestation in Yellowstone Lake will effectively wipe out the lake's premier Yellowstone cutthroat fishery.
"We wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't a really golden opportunity to do something for westslope cutthroat trout," he told me.
Westslope cuts, a subspecies of cutthroat trout, can be hard to distinguish from other cutthroat trout. However, it's said that they have more spots near their tail but none along their pectoral fins and could range in hue from greenish to silver.
According to a paper by Beth Gardner of the Swan Lake Ranger District in the Flathead National Forest, westslope cuts once were abundant throughout the Rocky Mountain West. However, these days the fish occupies roughly 19-27 percent of its historic range in Montana and about 36 percent of its range in Idaho, she notes. But when you drill down to 100 percent pure strains of westslope cuts, she stresses, the trout "are estimated to exist in only 2-4 percent of their historic stream distribution."
Some folks think the population's future is so dire that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should provide westslope cuts some protection under the Endangered Species Act. So imagine Koel's excitement when he received a tip that there might be an unknown population of westslope cuts in the park's extreme northwestern corner.
Sure enough, when Koel reached the area, he found a stream that was but a few feet wide and meandered for only about two or three miles before vanishing into the ground. But where it trickled, this stream was deep enough and vibrant enough to sustain a westslope cutthroat population that numbered between 700 and 800 and contained individuals that measured up to 12 inches in size.
Now Koel is planning to build on that population, in part by transplanting some to nearby High Lake, a roughly seven-acre body of water that years ago was stocked with Yellowstone cutthroat trout to keep backcountry anglers happy. Unfortunately, these cuts were not historically native to the watershed and actually helped beat down the genetically pure, and native, westslope cutthroat populations. So before Koel can begin the transplant, the Yellowstone cuts, and any other non-native fish, must be killed. And that's the rub with some.
Koel understands their feelings, but uses a lake trout analogy to defend his plan.
"The lake trout situation is a similar situation," he says, referring to Yellowstone Lake and the battle between lakers and Yellowstone cuts. "Lake trout crashed in the Great Lakes, but we're not preserving them here.
"... We shouldn't be preserving (Yellowstone cuts) where they're raising havoc with westslope cutthroat trout."
So now Koel is promoting an Environmental Assessment that examines a plan to allow him to remove non-native and hybridized fish from within the East Fork Specimen Creek watershed as well as from High Lake. Once that work is done, genetically pure westslope cuts will be returned to the streams within the watershed as well as High Lake, which Koel believes can become a vibrant fishery once again, but with westslope cuts, not Yellowstone cuts.
Public comments on the draft EA are being taken through June 7. If the draft gains approval, Koel could begin transplant operations by the fall of 2007.