Communication at forefront in reboot of cutthroat conservation

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Pulling out the maps, fisheries biologists drew on the experience of northwest Wyoming anglers and conservationists in an effort to help save the Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

In a third installment of scoping meetings intended to educate residents and draw on their knowledge, the region’s drainages were divvied up and groups circled large maps in the historic Cody Club Room to discuss every watershed flowing into the North Fork, South Fork and Clark’s Fork drainages. Every creek was analyzed for viability, scoured for desirable features such as natural barriers and evaluated for social importance.

The goal for each drainage was to identify five creeks for genetically isolated population projects (5 mile stretches of habitat with the possibility of natural or manmade barriers) and one metapopulation (25-mile stretch).

The eyes on the maps represented hundreds, if not thousands, of years of experience. Jason Burckhardt, Sam Hochhalter and Joe Skorupski — all Game and Fish fisheries biologists in the basin — led the groups with the help of professional facilitator Tara Kuipers. Kuipers spelled out the importance of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout preservation effort right up front.

“One of the goals … is keeping as far away from the Endangered Species Act as we possibly can,” Kuipers said.

It’s not the first time the maps have been studied. Biologists have been looking for project areas in historic and new habitats for decades in an attempt to save the species in decline. The introduction of brook and rainbow trout into cutthroat territory has driven them from their native creeks and diluted their purity through crossbreeding. Others feed on cutthroat fry — including illegally stocked walleye in the Buffalo Bill Reservoir and lake trout in Yellowstone Lake.

In 2014, Porcupine Creek in the Bighorn Mountains was identified as a project area. When the Game and Fish announced stocked brook trout would be removed to make room for native cutthroats, public outcry shut down the project. In 2016, Eagle Creek in the North Fork was identified as a location and again faced social outcry.

“We’re an agency that largely has the reputation of not being the best listeners,” said Sam Hochhalter, Cody Region fisheries supervisor.

The staff reorganized their efforts to include public stakeholders, this time hoping for the support they need for successful projects.

“We are very genuine in saying that if you give us recommendations that fit the biological needs of the cutthroat trout — that are scientifically defensible — we will follow them to the best of our ability,” Hochhalter told the collaboration.

The science is the same. The habitats are the same. But by adding public input — from many who have done their own leg work while working in and enjoying the area’s natural resources — the Game and Fish may have found a winning combination.

Dave Sweet, former owner of the Absaroka Mountain Lodge on the North Fork and lifetime East Yellowstone Chapter of Trout Unlimited member, traveled to all the meetings around the Big Horn Basin. Beyond Cody, the series included meetings in Lovell and Worland. It was an effort to get a full picture of the effort. Sweet’s experience on area watersheds is extensive, understanding habitat as well as social issues surrounding basin fisheries.

“There’s a place for all trout species, but the primary focus has to be on the Yellowstone cutthroat trout,” said Sweet.

At the recent meeting in Cody, he joined the group inspecting the North Fork’s promising project areas. Skorupski led the group. Surprisingly, coming to the top of the group’s list was Eagle Creek — the same project that led to criticism of the department two years ago. The habitat is ideal for an isolated population, complete with natural barriers in an area where building manmade barriers would be all but impossible.

The Elk Fork — another North Fork area creek — was also discussed, but it fell low on the list due to a thriving rainbow trout fishery popular with area anglers; a barrier would be needed on Elk Fork to separate cutthroats from rainbows, as the two species crossbreed and create hybrids called cut-bows. Concern of possibly flooding the Elk Fork campground — the only one open year-round on the North Fork — was also cited.

It was clear from discussion that removing the rainbows for a cutthroat project or threatening the campground would be an extremely unpopular move.

Meetings in Lovell and Worland, where fisheries in the Bighorn Range were discussed, didn’t find Porcupine Creek a good candidate for a project. Stocked brook trout are too popular in the watershed with area anglers to make it a feasible project, Sweet said.

“I hand it to the Game and Fish: They really listen to the public,” he said.

Department biologists will now work to compile information from all the meetings and decide on appropriate projects based on the feedback. It won’t be a fast process. Spring and summer field work will dominate most of their time. Included in the field work will be the rebuilding of fences on Soldier and Buckskin Head Creeks in the Bighorns — a project being done in cooperation between the fisheries department, Trout Unlimited and numerous volunteers working to help improve an important cutthroat habitat.

But the rebuilding of fences with the public in the department’s cutthroat conservation effort began this winter with communication.

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