Soldiers for cutthroat conservation

Volunteers help protect an important creek in the Bighorns

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In the monumental effort to conserve Yellowstone cutthroat trout, Soldier Creek is a success story.

The creek wends its way though lush meadows and picturesque canyons in the Bighorn Mountain Range. Cutthroats, which are northwest Wyoming’s only native trout, were returned to Soldier Creek in 2012 after brook trout were removed from the north fork of the creek in 2010. Since then, cutthroats have thrived and the habitat now provides anglers with some of the best fishing in the state.

“We have 1,500 [cutthroats] per mile in Soldier Creek — incredibly high density,” said Sam Hochhalter, Cody region fisheries supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Despite the success, the work isn’t finished. The creek needs cover for the fish to thrive and protection from cattle who have been camping on the water source due to a downed fence. The land is part of the Bighorn National Forest, and cattle roam the open range, as private ranchers have leased the section for grazing rights. Cows heading to the creek have eroded the banks.

The new fencing will help save the habitat and it’s just the start of the effort, said Dave Sweet, conservation project leader for the East Yellowstone chapter of Trout Unlimited. This single project took many months to plan, thousands of dollars to fund and hard labor to build.

“This is just phase one in a variety of efforts to protect the habitat,” Sweet said. “This is a high priority project. Soldier Creek has one of the few remaining Yellowstone cutthroat populations on the Bighorn side of the [Big Horn] Basin. It’s a stable population, not threatened by brook trout. We want to keep it that way and protect this habitat.”

A steel jack fence and the planting of trees and other plants are phase two of the plan. The fencing will keep elk and moose out of the section of creek, allowing freshly planted cover to mature.

“That’s what this creek needs — to stabilize the banks with willows and sedges. It provides overhead cover for the fish, keeps the water cool and encourages insects — natural food for trout,” Sweet said. “It will improve the fishing and there will be bigger fish.”

A renovated hatchery

The project is just a small part of Yellowstone cutthroat trout conservation efforts. Down the hill from Soldier Creek is the Ten Sleep Fish Hatchery, a state-of-the-art facility recently renovated by the Game and Fish. While producing millions of eggs and hundreds of thousands of trout for stocking programs, the hatchery also cares for a brood stock of the most pure Yellowstone cutthroats on earth, said Bart Burningham, superintendent of the hatchery.

“We’re the only [hatchery] in the world with a captive Yellowstone cutthroat brood stock,” Burningham said.

The stock, which comes from the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park, has been tested numerous times for hybridization. The hatchery has been outfitted with top equipment, all backed up and protected on several levels from disease and equipment malfunction. The entire site is protected from electrical failure by backup generators — and even that system has backups. Three employees live on the hatchery grounds for protection of the brood stock every hour of every day throughout the year. They take absolutely no risks in protection of the stock and work tirelessly to maintain the hatchery and grounds. For Burningham, it’s a labor of love.

“I’m very proud of what we have accomplished here,” he said.

Calling himself “a little long in the tooth,” Burningham has been at the hatchery for 22 years and seen some tough times for funding. But now, the commitment to the hatchery is a big priority for the Game and Fish — and at the hatchery, protecting the Yellowstone cutthroat brood stock is their top priority, Burningham said.

Cody region biologists, led by Hochhalter, have been trying to identify new habitats to reintroduce cutthroats from the hatchery. Their efforts include nonstop field work and conservation projects. Some are huge in scope, such as the fight to rid Buffalo Bill Reservoir of illegally stocked and trout-devouring walleye. They’ve also worked to educate the public, making their work transparent through scoping meetings and programs to involve the general public and conservation organizations.

Part of the department’s reward for its work comes through much needed volunteers. More than 30 volunteers had a hand in the work at the fence construction site. Seeing the dozens of volunteers on site over the three-day project was heartwarming for Chris Williams, hydrologist for the U.S. Forest Service.

Williams was one of several state and federal employees on hand to help build the fence. But despite a large commitment by the agencies, the job would have dragged on for weeks without volunteers, Williams said.

“I thought there were only going to be five or six [volunteers]. This is a lot of work. It would be a much longer, tougher job without them,” he said.

Time and equipment donated

Volunteers involved in constructing the fence carried materials to the site by hand and many holes were dug the old-fashioned way: with shovels and post hole diggers. One Bobcat with a post-digging attachment was volunteered for the project.

The principal funding for all the materials needed to build the fence came from the sale of a commissioner’s elk tag donated for the project by Game and Fish Commissioner Peter J. Dube. The project cost over $11,000, including materials and delivery to the remote area. No funds were spent to get volunteers to the site or to feed the group of about 20 workers. Equipment used to complete the project was donated as well.

Much in the same way that the cutthroat conservation project is a long-term project, so is the effort to cultivate a steady stream of conservation-minded volunteers. Dean Olenik, a science teacher from Cody High School, brought student volunteers to the site as part of the school’s Outdoor Club.

Since its inception 14 years ago, club members have experienced a variety of outdoor activities. Volunteering for hard work for three days may not be as much fun as mountain climbing or a field trip to Peru, but they are imperative in an age when finding youth involvement is getting tough. About 120 students are involved in the club, Olenik said. Three students chose to spend the week working on the project.

“Over the years, we’ve put in a lot of miles,” Olenik said. “The community has been so good to us [with donations] so we try to get out and do community service when we can.”

Volunteers from the club also worked on fish rescue in area canals and trash cleanup in the Shoshone this past winter.

“If you get them to fall in love with [the outdoors], they’re going to take care of it,” Olenik said.

With the fence now complete, phase two of the Soldier Creek project should be completed in the next two or three years, Sweet said.

“It all depends on funding and volunteers,” he said.

As the volunteers worked on Monday morning, a fisherman came to to the creek. He harvested three beautiful cutthroats (the limit in creeks and rivers) before heading home with his prize.

“That’s very much a part of people’s trip up here,” Hochhalter said. “They want to have some fish in the skillet or wrapped in tin foil on the fire and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Hochhalter was operating a post hole digger by hand.

“It’s a beautiful section of the stream that just needs a little attention,” Hochhalter said.

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