Thursday, May 28, 2015

Yellowstone's Fishing Bridge & Native Trout

This Memorial Day weekend my wife and I took our two year old daughter to Yellowstone National Park.  We entered the Park through the east entrance that leads directly to Fishing Bridge.  It is here where once anglers congregated to pull plump Yellowstone cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki bouvieri) from the water with reckless abandon.  Alas, such was the times, but times have changed.

Today the waters of the Yellowstone River that flow beneath Fishing Bridge are closed to angling to protect the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout.  If you've had the opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park you know that vast portions of the pristine Yellowstone River along with nearly every other water in the Park are open to receive a fly (in season of course).

I like to walk across Fishing Bridge and take in the scenery, but my eyes always stray to the river itself.  I'm searching for the native trout holding in the beautiful waters below.  On the first day of our visit the waters were a bit off color, likely from the recent and repeated rainfall we'd been having over the last week.  The second day brought sight of a pod of Yellowstone cutthroat trout holding together in the waters below us; each one was a bruiser in its own right.  I counted a total of six fish in the pod and saw no others during my brief scan of the waters as I stalked across Fishing Bridge.

The illegal introduction of nonnative lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) have decimated the native cutthroat trout population.  I chalk up seeing only a half dozen fish this visit as a result of lake trout depredation that continues to plague the resident cutthroat trout.  The Park Service continues actively working to suppress the lake trout in Yellowstone Lake which may improve native cutthroat trout numbers.  The view from Fishing Bridge will surely be improved as native trout rebound and once again fill their ecological role in the Yellowstone River that runs beneath the bridge.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Trout, Trees and Grizzlies

Here in Yellowstone country the topic or grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horriblus) has received considerable attention as of late.  The Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee held its annual meeting here in Cody, WY, and the topic of grizzly bears made the front cover of the two local newspapers.

Why grizzly bears and why now?  The Fish and Wildlife Service is again working toward removing the Greater Yellowstone's grizzly bear population from the protections of the Endangered Species Act. The Greater Yellowstone grizzly population was delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2009, but was subsequently placed back on the list as 'threatened' after a successful court challenge from environmental groups.  

The  argument that resulted in returning the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem  to the Endangered Species List was an ecological argument.  While the population was growing and filling in the available habitat, its existence was far from secure as two of the bear's food sources were under threat- whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) trees from climate change and Yellowstone cutthroat trout (YCT) (Oncorhynchus clarki bouvieri) from the introduction of lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) to Yellowstone Lake.

Whitebark have fallen prey to drought, fire, and most importantly the Mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) epidemic that has been recognized by public land managers and scientists as unprecedented in its scale.

Yellowstone lake was once recognized as the "stronghold" for native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, but a breach in that citadel was discovered in 1994, the result of an illegal introduction of lake trout that have consumed YCT at a voracious rate.  The National Park Service has noted at least some success in curbing these nonnative predators as lake trout numbers have decline, but it is extremely unlikely that lake trout will ever be fully removed from Yellowstone Lake.

Trout, trees, and grizzlies- together the weave a beautiful ecological web.  In this instance they also serve to inform us of the multiple stresses on what is considered one of the most pristine ecosystems in the lower forty-eight states, and right now the debate over grizzly bears highlights the difficulty of managing for a single strand of this ecological web when all others are interconnected and affected.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Man's Best Fishing Friend

Trout Unlimited's most recent issue of Trout magazine (Spring 2015) included a short essay that laid bare the emotional attachment so many of us have for our four-legged fishing (and hunting) partners. Christopher Camuto opens his heart with pen and ink allowing us a peak into the the enduring relationship that  man and dog build as together we traverse the more wild parts of the landscape and our emotional selves.

Snickers the fishing dachshund

 I never would have guessed that an eight pound miniature dachshund was destined to become my best friend and favorite fishing companion.  While afflicted by a mild fear of water (at little over half a foot tall at the shoulder who could blame him), Snickers would faithfully follow me up and down the stream bank as I waded.

Getting out of the stream
Over the last nine years Snickers has followed my footsteps as I worked waters across the country.  Never patient, he would scour the banks in search of entertainment, but would never stray far.  He always kept me within sight and was always at my heels whenever I left the water.  After a long day of fishing and exploring he has always been a welcome addition to my lap in front of a campfire.

Camouflage Dachshund
Just as Christopher detailed the aging and eventual loss of his four-legged friend in his piece in Trout, so has Snickers begun to age and become more inclined to wait for me at camp rather than follow me along the stream.  I miss having my black-and-tan friend greet me with a wag of his tail and a sharp bark as I step from the stream; he now waits patiently for my return and is the first to greet me when I return to camp. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Trout Unlimited: The Champion of Coldwater Conservation

It occurred to me this weekend as I was drawing together ideas for this week's post that I have never taken the time to discuss the gold standard in coldwater conservation, Trout Unlimited.

Established in Grayling, Michigan in 1959, sixteen prescient anglers had a vision of trout streams filled with wild trout rather than hatchery produced clones dumped from the back of trucks.  Since its establishment the nonprofit organization has grown into the nation's largest coldwater conservation organization with a focus on those things most important to anglers- healthy habitat and wild trout.

I've been a member of Trout Unlimited in different capacities for nearly a decade. I've been a dues paying volunteer member in my home state of Wyoming as well as Montana and New Hampshire.  While attending graduate school in New Hampshire I had the great fortune to serve as a Conservation Director for the local Trout Unlimited chapter.

As conservation organizations go Trout Unlimited is a soft-spoken organization.  It allows its accomplishments to speak for it rather than lawsuits or hyperbole filled press releases.  Whether its restoring locally nominated favorite waters through its "Embrace a Stream" program or engaging school children with the "Trout in the Classroom" curriculum, Trout Unlimited is at the forefront of protecting the resources we love most.

I encourage you to take a look at all the work Trout Unlimited has accomplished, the tremendous number conservation and science programs they oversee, and see if there is a local chapter near you.
Swift River, New Hampshire

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Has the Wild and Scenic River Act failed?

Yesterday the Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks announced that it is likely again safe to eat fish in the Yellowstone River following the recent oil spill following a break in a pipeline that stretches beneath the river. The announcement has given me cause to again revisit the injustice at how few miles of our cherished waters in the U.S. are designated as either Wild or Scenic.

I discussed Wild and Scenic Rivers in an earlier post and today again revisit the Yellowstone River to examine why the designation is so important.  The Yellowstone River is the last remaining great undammed river in the lower 48 States.  That only 20.5 miles of the great river, all of which is contained in the Clark's Fork, are designated Wild & Scenic is a conservation travesty.  The recent, and I should mention reoccurring, oil spills that have plagued the Yellowstone provide more than enough incentive to push for much more of the river to be designated as either Wild or Scenic by Congress.  If all we can protect of the great and mighty Yellowstone River is a paltry 20.5 miles then we have failed to take advantage of the opportunities and protections offered our cherished waters under the Wild &Scenic Rivers Act.

I reflect on this as we yet again clean-up another oil spill along a cherished river and wonder if the Wild & Scenic River Act has failed or if we've failed to capitalize on the spirit of the Act?

Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River
I recently posted a set of picture to my Facebook page  from my hike along the Wild and Scenic Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming on the first day of Spring.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Rivers, Oil Spills, and Clean Water

A recent local newspaper article examined the impacts of development within river corridors through the lens of recent oil spills resulting from breaches of the oil pipeline that runs under the Yellowstone River near Billings, Montana.

Gushing oil in the Yellowstone River, the longest undammed river remaining in America, unfortunately illustrates only one of many cumulative impacts to our cherished rivers.  Toxic chemicals, nutrient pollution, dams, dredging, riparian development up to the edge of rivers, the loss of floodplains- all of these threats cumulatively impact the waters we love and that we love to fish. If you were to put your drift boat in at the mountain headwaters of your favorite river and float to its terminus at the ocean it spills to, you would encounter greater and greater damage as you moved downstream.

This is not to say that development, technology, or society are incompatible with health rivers and clean water.  Instead, many of our cherished waters are approaching or have already reached a tipping point.  In many cases the tipping point may be water that is undrinkable, may not be safely allow for swimming, or the fish successfully pulled from the waters eaten, in short falling far short of the goals of the Clean Water Act.  We have reached a point in our societal path where we need to examine with open eyes and open minds the trade-offs that exist between continued development of our waters and conservation of such a limited resource, an examination that hopefully is informed by our love of the sport of fly fishing.

The Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River near Clark, Wyoming

Monday, March 30, 2015

Fishing without a Pole

On the first day of Spring I found myself spending the unseasonably warm day fishing without a pole.  Perhaps more accurately, I spent the weekend on trails nears some of my favorite waters in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming.  I call this fishing without a pole as even though I wasn't casting a line my thoughts were tied to my home waters as I logged mile after mile on two different trails.

The first trail paralleled the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River.  The route I followed is the Morrison Jeep Trail and offers access to superb water and splendid scenery.  On this particular day there was no ATV traffic to contend with, which if you are interested in taking the trail and want at least a modicum of peace, I recommend hiking the route between December and April in order to reduce the amount of ATV traffic you encounter.
Looking west into Clark's Fork Canyon along the Morrison Jeep Trail

During the course of the day I encountered a small herd of Big Horn Sheep as well as a numerous small herds of mule deer, much to my surprise.  I walked the length of the ATV route, about five miles, until the trail began ascending the canyon wall.  The ATV path zig-zags up the canyon wall and allows you access to the Beartooth Plateau above, but this wasn't for me today.  Instead I continued following a footpath upon which ATV traffic was barred by a wrought iron fence and gate.  Little to my knowledge the trail continued for what a little less than a mile before terminating as the sheer canyon walls pushed out to meet the edge of the water.  I had hoped to cover a bit more distance before turning back to return on the same route I came, but alas it was not to be.
Warning sign before beginning the ascent from the bottom of Clark's Fork Canyon.

While my trip had met its half-way point, I was pleasantly surprised by the new potential fishing holes I'd found as well as a most interesting collection of trees that gathered together in a small copse on my side of the river.  The little riverine community included Englemann spruce, limber pine, and juniper.  Juxtaposed against the sheer rock cliffs and the river the grove offered the perfect spot from which to eat lunch and consider the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone, fly fishing, ATVs, public lands, and the multitude of issues and conflicts that surround each.  In short, it was like fishing without a pole.

End of the trail as river meets rock