State officials have proposed trading electrofishing gear for poison on a popular Yellowstone-area stream, an idea that has some anglers upset.
The project, which is now open for public comment, would use rotenone, an EPA-approved piscicide, to kill all fish in the upper 38 miles of Soda Butte Creek upstream of Ice Box Canyon and restock it with genetically pure Yellowstone cutthroat trout.
The stream begins in the mountains near Cooke City and runs into the Lamar River. It is popular among fly-fishers for its scenic views and population of native Yellowstone cutthroats.
But non-native brook trout live in the upper part of the stream. Biologists say brook trout threaten cutthroat by sharing habitat and competing for food.
State and federal officials worry that brook trout could spread into the Lamar River, one of a few strongholds for Yellowstone cutthroat.
Over the past two decades, state and federal biologists have prevented that through electrofishing — shocking fish and killing the brook trout.
But those efforts haven’t done enough, biologists say, and won’t eradicate brook trout. Poisoning the stream, which they hope to begin in August, will make it unfishable for at least 30 days and kill all fish in the area — including a population of slightly hybridized Yellowstone cutthroats.
Richard Parks, longtime owner of Parks Fly shop in Gardiner, said poisoning the stream is too much and that the state should continue electrofishing. He equated the change in approach to using a “sledgehammer as a fly swatter.”
“It just seems to be massive overkill,” Parks said.
Parks said hundreds of people fish the upper portion of the stream each year. It’s tougher to access than the lower part — which won’t be poisoned — but is valuable to anglers who want to fish Soda Butte Creek but “don’t want to have to take a number.”
Livingston resident Jim Brandau agreed with Parks and said the stream is very important.
“It’s one of my favorite streams in that whole area of the park,” he said.
The public comment period on the proposal closes Friday, and a decision notice is likely in the next few weeks.
But, so far, it appears the state is sticking to its plan.
FWP biologist Mike Ruggles said people want to see pure, native cutthroats in the stream, and getting rid of brook trout is one way to be sure those fish are successful.
“They’re driving to Cooke City to catch cutthroat,” not brook or rainbow trout, Ruggles said. “It’s something that’s unique to the Yellowstone ecosystem.”
Fellow FWP biologist Jason Rhoten, who is working on the project, said electrofishing had suppressed the population, but hasn’t stopped the fish from moving downstream.
“We know that they’re moving,” Rhoten said.
“The rotenone application probably isn’t going to get every single brook trout either,” Parks said.
Rhoten is confident, though, and said one successful poison operation this summer would save FWP the annual cost of sending electrofishing crews to Soda Butte Creek every summer, like the department has been doing since the early 90s.
The government also has support from one of the state’s major fishing groups, Montana Trout Unlimited.
Bruce Farling, the group’s executive director, agreed that people like fishing for a unique species and added that native species are best suited for the environment.
“Native fish have the genes,” Farling said. “They’ve survived fires, volcanoes, drought.”
Farling favors most projects to restore native fish and noted that poison has been used on several streams, including Cherry Creek, a Madison River tributary.
“This is not a unique project. Projects of this scale and larger have been successful,” he said.
Still, people like Brandau aren’t thrilled about the potential for one of their favorite streams to be shut down.
“Even from across the country this would still tick me off,” Brandau said.