Two fish swam lazily on the leeward seam of a boulder just on the edge of the outlet of Tower Creek in Yellowstone Lake. One was very large, fat but stout, olive green with white spots, clearly he was a Mackinaw, the lake trout. His maw was full of sharp teeth and clearly he had just eaten because he didn’t seem to mind the trout holding next to him in the current. The trout was smaller and leaner, but had broad shoulders, and in the right light, he gleamed gold with an olive green back and black spots. He had great red slashes below his mouth, the mark of a cutthroat trout. The two fish eyed each other with caution, finally, the lake trout felt compelled to speak to the smaller trout and turned slightly to speak.
“Look at me brother and despair. In the waters of my ancestors, I was a great King. No herring could escape my hunger or my deadly attack from the deepest darkest depths. My people are at war in our homewaters with the Salmon. But my people have been transplanted again and again and every where I invade, my instincts become a scourge. Here I dwell now, in my new kingdom, the mighty Yellowstone Lake. I have conquered you and now you are my subject. “
The cutthroat did not seem impressed, and he swam a couple of circles around the lake trout. He smiled politely before speaking.
“Yes, it is true, you have made your mark, you’ve taken many of my brothers and sisters, you have reduced us to mere food. We once roamed this lake and its tributaries in the millions. When the sun turned its great orb on Yellowstone, it often blushed with envy at the golden light we produced, and now we are diminished. We run and hide, far up the creeks to escape your armies.”
The great lake trout practically swooned in his power.
“Then why are you not hiding from me now my morsel? Is it because I’ve just eaten and you can see I have no more room for you?”
The cutthroat replied, “No, we no longer need to hide, for we’ve found new allies and I’m here to deliver a message. Your own ravenous hunger will be your downfall.”
The large lake trout was troubled by the message, but only momentarily, for his hunger had returned and so he turned and snapped-up the cutthroat trout. Suddenly he felt satisfied, even pleased that he had once again let his instincts guide him. In his reverie, he turned and headed back for the deep, but found that he couldn’t move. There was something around his neck that grasped at his gills. In a panic he gave a shove but was held fast. He tried to breath and found he could not. He tried to swim down to the depths but the turn only made it worse. He began to see spots and blackness, his vision was fading. It dawned on him then, the other trout’s prophetic warning had come true. His last thoughts were, “Perhaps if I had spared my brother, I would not be stuck fast in this net, but then, I rule here, do I not?”
America’s first park is under siege, not by armies, but by a fish, a non-native from the char family, the Mackinaw, commonly known as the lake trout. Since its illegal introduction in the mid-90s, Lakers have devastated the once millions-strong native population of cutthroat trout. Voracious predators, lakers kill the fry and adult cutthroat and crowd out every other species of fish, removing a vital step in the ecosystem that supports more than forty other species in Yellowstone Park, including otters, bears, wolves, foxes and various raptors. Unlike cuthroat, lakers dwell deep and avoid predation. Today, the National Park Service, local chapters of Trout Unlimited and other partners are joined in a battle to restore balance to the lake and its tributaries, with an aggressive lake trout reduction plan, involving tagging and gill netting. Because of their size, lake trout can be netted, allowing younger smaller cutthroat to escape.
In my growth as a fly fisher, I have rekindled a deep and passionate commitment to our environment and its protection. Here in NY, the laker is a prized fish pursued by trolling, seldom taken on the fly. However, the “Mack” has no place out west, not when we have the science and knowledge to protect our native species. However, this battle is about more than science. Reducing the lake trout population and restoring cutthroats in Yellowstone is symbolic. In an era when every pristine habitat is under threat from mining, development or climate change, the seemingly immovable forces of business and man, the challenge of restoring balance is under our control. Individuals can make a difference. By entering the 2012 Outdoor Blogger Tour contest I hope to be able to witness first hand the efforts of the National Park Service in protecting Yellowstone and returning to NY to think, write and talk about it with my local TU chapter. Though I know conservation begins at home, the protection of Yellowstone’s native species stands as a special effort that can inspire us all.