Snows came early to Yellowstone country this past winter. Moisture and snowpack were on track for an above normal measurement, something not seen in several years on some of the rivers and streams draining the mountains. Still, we're in a come-from-behind situation, and lack of moisture does not bode well for trout.
Drought has been the subject of many an angler's conversation since 1998, our last good water year in Yellowstone National Park. Questions that are debated in fly shops and outfitter lodges center around "global warming." Some think our planet goes through these wet and dry cycles regularly and more CO2 in the atmosphere might be a factor, but the facts still exist to prove the argument that drought is not a new visitor to Yellowstone, nor to the arid steppes east and west of the Park. Others consider the vast removal of trees due to fire (1988, 2000 and 2003) in the greater Yellowstone region to be most responsible for the decrease in snowpack and summer monsoons, once considered to be part of the overall year-round Yellowstone experience.
The latter argument does hold some water, if you will excuse the pun. When over two million acres of timber is removed, the vast quantities of moisture released into the atmosphere also disappears. Grasses, shrubs, and solar evaporation do not put the same volume of moisture into the atmosphere. Hence, drought effects are increased because conifer forests are no longer part of the landscape.
Without getting too scientific, trees hold moisture. If one looks closely at northerly facing hillsides covered in timber, one will see that snowbanks (moisture) remain in these areas well past the time slopes without timber does. The captured moisture then wicks its way downward through the soils into the water table and trickles back in the form of springs, freshets, and higher water tables. Drought years were not as close together as they have been in the 16 years since fires cremated more than two-thirds of Yellowstone's historic landscape. Is there truth to the deduction?
So, will Yellowstone's fisheries continue to maintain population densities seen in the 20th century? Time will tell is the obvious answer. Those of us bemoaning the loss of abundant moisture must also examine how we want to treat the rivers and streams filled with wild trout in the 21st century.
We might have to be content to just watch the trout and hope for a wetter time. Or, we can limit our impact to stressed trout populations by changing the way we currently think our 'right' to catch fish should be. Burying our heads in the sand will not bring back the native Yellowstone cutthroat in Yellowstone Lake, Pelican Creek or the Thorofare River region. Catch and release is a great concept and is now practiced by more anglers than ever before and it should be.
Angling for sport means the human population has recognized their impacts to fisheries, whether by pollution or over harvesting. In Yellowstone, anglers might be asked to look and not touch until trout numbers bounce back or when the drought ends the stress from natural predation and warmer water temperatures.
The resolution will be sooner than later, hopefully, but in the meantime, it is every angler's responsibility to treat a healthy or unhealthy trout fishery with the respect it deserves. In the long-term, if we humans cooperate with what Mother Nature brings us by implementing closures and special regulations, angling in Yellowstone can be enjoyable for this century and beyond.