Created in 1872, Yellowstone National Park was, for several years, the only wildland under active federal management. Early visitors fished and hunted for subsistence, as there were almost no visitor services. At the time, fishes of the park were viewed as resources to be used by sport anglers and provide park visitors with fresh meals. Fish-eating wildlife, such as bears, ospreys, otters, and pelicans, were regarded as a nuisance, and many were destroyed as a result.
To supplement fishing and to counteract “destructive” consumption by wildlife, a fish“planting” program was established in Yellowstone. Early park superintendents noted the vast fishless waters of the park and asked the U.S. Fish Commission to “see that all waters are stocked so that the pleasure seeker can enjoy fine fishing within a few rods of any hotel or camp” (Boutelle 1889). The first fishes from outside the park were planted in 1889–1890, and included brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) in the upper Firehole River, rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in the upper Gibbon River, and brown trout (Salmo trutta) and lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) in Lewis and Shoshone lakes. The harvest-oriented fish management program accounted for the planting of more than 310 million native and non-native fish in Yellowstone between 1881 and 1955. In addition, from 1889 to 1956, some 818 million eggs were stripped from Yellowstone trout and shipped to locations throughout the United States.
Largely due to these activities and the popularity of Yellowstone’s fisheries, recreational angling became a long-term, accepted activity in national parks throughout the country. In Yellowstone, fisheries management, as the term is understood today, began with the U.S. Army, and was assumed by the National Park Service in 1916. Fish stocking, data gathering, and other monitoring activities began with the U.S. Fish Commission in 1889, were continued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until 1996, and have been the responsibility of the National Park Service since then.
Approximately 48% of Yellowstone’s waters were once fishless, and the stocking of non-native fishes by park managers has had profound ecological consequences. The more serious of these include displacement of intolerant natives such as westslope cutthroat trout (O. clarki lewisi) and Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus), hybridization of Yellowstone (O. c. bouvieri) and westslope cutthroat trout with each other and with non-native rainbow trout, and, most recently, predation of Yellowstone cutthroat trout by non-native lake trout. Over the years, management policies of the National Park Service have drastically changed to reflect new ecological insights. Subsistence use and harvest orientation once guided fisheries management. Now, maintenance of natural biotic associations or, where possible, restoration to pre-Euro-American conditions have emerged as primary goals. Eighteen fish species or subspecies currently are known to exist in Yellowstone National Park; 13 of these are considered native (they were known to exist in park waters prior to Euro-American settlement), and five are introduced (non-native or exotic).
A perceived conflict exists in the National Park Service mandate to protect and preserve pristine natural systems and also provide for use and enjoyment. However, fisheries management efforts in Yellowstone are currently focused on preservation of native species, while allowing for use of these fisheries by visiting anglers through a complete catch-and-release regulation. Because the primary mission of Yellowstone’s Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Program is the preservation of natural ecosystems and ecosystem processes, the program does not emphasize maintenance of established non-native fish stocks. In fact, harvest regulations recently have been liberalized, and anglers are encouraged to keep non-native trout caught in waters where they co-exist and are causing harm to native cutthroat trout or Arctic grayling. Fisheries Program activities almost exclusively focused on the preservation of Yellowstone Lake cutthroat trout, the restoration of fluvial populations of native trout, and research and monitoring to support these critical activities.