Yellowstone National Park’s general fishing season opened May 25 with several notable changes to the park’s fishing regulations.

In an effort to protect native fish species and bring fishing regulations in line with Yellowstone’s Native Fish Conservation Plan, the park eliminated the limit on non-native fish caught in the park’s Native Trout Conservation area. The change affects all park waters except the Madison and Firehole rivers, the Gibbon River below Gibbon Falls and Shoshone and Lewis lakes.

Additionally, brook trout and rainbow trout caught in the Lamar River drainage, which includes Slough Creek and Soda Butte Creek in Yellowstone’s northeast corner, must be harvested to protect native Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

The new regulations are part of an aggressive effort by the National Park Service to protect and restore native fish species within Yellowstone, including fluvial Arctic grayling, Yellowstone cutthroat trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

“Up until this point we have had fishing regulations that were somewhat protective of non-native fish,” said Yellowstone National Park supervisory fisheries biologist Todd Koel. “We have implemented conservation actions in some drainages to preserve native cutthroat trout and remove non-native species.

“The regs were not in line with the work on the ground,” Koel said. “We are asking anglers to help us in removing these fish from the drainage to save native cutthroat trout.”

Fortunately, the park will have plenty of help.

Yellowstone spokesperson Dan Hottle said fishing permit sales have remained fairly stable over the past five years, indicating fishing in Yellowstone is as popular as ever. For the 2012 season, Yellowstone sold 26,587 3-day permits; 7,933 7-day permits; and 4,794 annual permits.

According to Yellowstone’s Native Fish Conservation Plan, native fish “and their important ecological roles within the park have been significantly compromised by introduced non-native species, disease and climate change.” Other factors, including habitat degradation and fragmentation have led to precipitous declines in native fish populations both inside and outside Yellowstone.

The introduction of non-native fish species to Yellowstone began early in the park’s history. To establish recreation and sustenance fisheries, Yellowstone officials stocked fish in many park waters, including those that had been historically fishless, as far back as the 1880s. Brook trout, brown trout and rainbow trout were present in the park by the 1890s, along with other game fish such as largemouth bass and yellow perch. Nearly all park waters were stocked with some species of sport fish between the 1880s and 1950s.

A change in thinking during the 1950s altered the course of Yellowstone Park fisheries. Conservation and restoration efforts shifted to wild fish management. The practice of stocking, which had introduced some 300 million fish into park waters, was abandoned in favor of native fish conservation.

But the path of the past had taken a toll.

As of 2010, grayling had been completely eliminated from park waters and westslope cutthroat trout were present in only Last Chance Creek and the East Fork of Specimen Creek.

Outside the Yellowstone Lake ecosystem (upstream of Upper Falls near Canyon), Yellowstone cutthroat trout persist in many park waters, but face significant threats. Hybridization with non-native rainbow trout poses the greatest risk to Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the Lamar River drainage.

“Preserving Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the Yellowstone Lake ecosystem is our No. 1 priority,” Koel said. “But there are also other critical areas we need to preserve cutthroat and one of those places is the Lamar.

“That watershed represents the largest remaining Yellowstone cutthroat trout population, but it is totally open to invasion by rainbow trout downstream. There are no barriers to prevent rainbows moving in there.”

Koel said efforts are under way to stop the upstream migration of rainbow trout into the Lamar River drainage. The park is working on a project that would alter a bedrock waterfall in Ice Box Canyon, creating a migration barrier to prevent Yellowstone River rainbow trout from accessing upper Soda Butte Creek.

Fish barrier projects on Slough Creek, between the campground and the first meadow, and on Flint Creek are in the early stages of planning, Koel said. The park is also using electrofishing to remove rainbow and brook trout from the Lamar River system.

The park is hoping the new regulations requiring anglers to harvest brook and rainbow trout in the Lamar River will help reduce the number of non-native fish and benefit the cutthroat fishery. Those anglers keeping fish could play a vital role in the recovery and restoration of Yellowstone’s native trout species.

Ben Pierce can be reached at bpierce@dailychronicle.com and 582-2625.

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