Yellowstone cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri) are the most widespread native trout of the park and were the dominant fish species here prior to Euroamerican settlement. They are an important species in Yellowstone National Park, upon which many other species depend. They provide an important source of food for an estimated 16 species of birds, and mammals including bears, river otters, and mink.
Genetically pure Yellowstone cutthroat trout (YCT) populations have declined throughout their natural range in the Intermountain West, succumbing to competition with and predation by nonnative fish species, a loss of genetic integrity through hybridization, habitat degradation, and angling harvest. Many of the remaining genetically pure YCT are found within the park. State and federal wildlife agencies classify YCT as a sensitive species. However, the US Fish and Wildlife Service does not warrant listing the YCT as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The Yellowstone cutthroat trout population in the Yellowstone Lake ecosystem has declined substantially since the mid-1980s. Lake-wide sampling began in 1968 and in 2014 the average number of YCT caught at survey sites reached a recent high of 28.4 fish per 100 meters of net. Average number of fish declined in 2016 (18.2/100 meters of net), but steadily increased in 2018 (26.11/100 meters of net).
Monitoring at Clear Creek, a Yellowstone Lake tributary, began in 1945. The number of YCT spawning there peaked at more than 70,000 in 1978 and fell to 538 by 2007. The decline is attributed to predation by nonnative lake trout, low water during drought years, and the nonnative parasite that causes whirling disease.
Two-thirds of the streams that were part of the species’ native habitat outside the Yellowstone Lake watershed still contain genetically pure YCT; in other streams they have hybridized with rainbow trout.
Yellowstone Lake and the Yellowstone River together contain the largest inland population of cutthroat trout in the world. While the Yellowstone cutthroat trout is historically a Pacific drainage species, it has (naturally) traveled across the Continental Divide into the Atlantic drainage. One possible such passage in the Yellowstone area is Two Ocean Pass, south of the park in the Teton Wilderness.
The variety of habitats resulted in the evolution of various life history types among Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Some populations live and spawn within a single stream or river (fluvial), some live in a stream and move into a tributary to spawn (fluvial-adfluvial), some live in a lake and spawn in a tributary (lacustrine- adfluvial), and still others live in a lake and spawn in an outlet stream (allacustrine). Life history diversity within an ecosystem helps protect a population from being lost in a single extreme natural event.
Habitat remains pristine within Yellowstone National Park, but nonnative fish species pose a serious threat to native fish. In Yellowstone Lake, lake trout are a major predator of cutthroat trout. Brown, brook, and rainbow trout all compete with cutthroat trout for food and habitat. Rainbow trout pose the additional threat of hybridizing with cutthroat trout. Because of the lack of barriers in the lower reaches of most drainages, nonnative fish have been dispersing upstream and have replaced, or threaten to replace, cutthroat trout.
The objectives of Yellowstone’s Native Fish Conservation Plan (2010) include recovery of YCT abundance in the lake to that documented in the late 1990s, maintaining access for spawning YCT in at least 45 of 59 Yellowstone Lake’s historical spawning tributaries, and maintaining or restoring genetically pure YCT in the current extent of streams occupied by pure or hybrid YCT.
Because no barriers to upstream fish migration exist in the mainstem Lamar River, descendants of rainbow trout stocked in the 1930s have spread to many locations across the watershed and hybridized with cutthroat trout. Genetic analysis indicates that cutthroat trout in the headwater reaches of the Lamar River remain genetically unaltered.
To protect the remaining Yellowstone cutthroat trout, the NPS has implemented a selective removal approach. A mandatory kill fishing regulation on all rainbow trout caught upstream of the Lamar River bridge was instituted in 2014. Selective removal by electrofishing has been conducted annually through the Lamar Valley since 2013.
In 2015, 136 fish were sampled downstream of the Lamar River bridge. Based on field identification, 48% were Yellowstone cutthroat trout, 19% were rainbow trout, and 31% were hybrids. The majority of these fish were tagged with radio transmitters or passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags as part of an ongoing research project to determine if Yellowstone cutthroat, rainbow, and hybrid trout are using the same areas to spawn and spawn timing and to inform management actions.
In Slough Creek, rainbow-cutthroat trout hybrids have been found with increasing frequency over the past decade. Unlike the Lamar River, Slough Creek is smaller, and a barrier to upstream fish movement has been constructed. With a barrier in place and rainbow trout no longer allowed passage into the system, existing rainbow and hybrid trout can be effectively managed with angling and electrofishing removal.
Soda Butte Creek
Brook trout became established in Soda Butte Creek outside of the park boundary and spread downstream into park waters in the early 2000s. Initially, brook trout were isolated in headwater reaches by a chemical barrier created by mine contamination upstream of Cooke City, Montana. When the mine tailings were removed, brook trout passed downstream and began to negatively impact the cutthroat trout. To date, no brook trout have been found in Soda Butte Creek downstream of Ice Box Falls.
For nearly two decades, interagency electrofishing surveys were enough to keep brook trout populations low, but did not prevent range expansion. Over time, brook trout spread downstream and became a threat to the Lamar River. In addition, rainbow trout hybridization continued to be identified in cutthroat trout upstream of Ice Box Falls.
In 2013 Ice Box Falls was modified to be a complete barrier to upstream fish movement, thus entirely eliminating the threat of nonnative fish traveling upstream. Nearly 450 brook trout were removed during the chemical treatment in 2015. Only two brook trout were collected from Soda Butte Creek during a second treatment in 2016. In 2017, two rounds of eDNA sampling, as well as electrofishing surveys, found no evidence of brook trout in the system. This is a good indication that a complete kill was achieved in the drainage.
Elk Creek Complex
There is a natural cascade barrier in Elk Creek just upstream from its confluence with the Yellowstone River. The cascade prevented fish from naturally populating the system, so the Elk, Lost, and Yancey creeks complex of streams (Elk Creek Complex) was fishless when first stocked with cutthroat trout in the early 1920s. In 1942, the streams were stocked with brook trout, resulting in the complete loss of cutthroat trout.
The Elk Creek Complex was treated with rotenone annually from 2012 to 2014 to remove brook trout. Once clear of brook trout, reintroduction of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout began. Antelope and Pebble creeks provided fish for stocking the Elk Creek Complex in October 2015. Additional stocking took place in 2016 and 2017. Natural reproduction was also documented in 2017 during electrofishing surveys.
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Mottled sculpin live in shallow, cold water throughout Yellowstone except the Yellowstone River above Lower Falls and in Yellowstone Lake.
Yellowstone’s minnows are small fish living in a variety of habitats and eating a variety of foods.
Suckers are bottom-dwelling fish that use ridges on their jaws to scrape flora and fauna from rocks.
Last updated: November 4, 2019