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Yellowstone in winter

Yellowstone in winter, on cross-country skis: Gliding through a wilderness of ice and snow

Yellowstone’s wilderness is reclaimed when the throngs of summer tourists leave and the temperature drops below zero. Most of the park’s roads and services shut down, and the landscape is transformed into an otherworldly land of ice and snow.

Relatively few people venture into the park at this time, just 17,262 overnight visitors last winter compared to the nearly 1.2 million overnight stays between June and September 2010.

The wildlife reemerges with the people gone, and wolves, foxes, swans, geese, eagles, bison and elk are more frequently seen at this time of year.

It’s also a prime time for cross-country skiing. Yellowstone in winter has plenty of trails for novices like us and experts alike. No matter the skill level, a ski trip in Yellowstone leaves you with a sense of the park’s beauty that is completely different from the busy summer months.

The Old Faithful Snow Lodge and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel near the northern entrance are the only accommodations inside the park during the winter season from mid-December until the first weekend of March. There’s usually plenty of space throughout the season, with Old Faithful normally running at about 70 percent of capacity and Mammoth about 60 percent full. The exception is Christmas, when the lodges are usually full.

But the adventure begins just outside the door with the iconic geyser as the main attraction. In winter its possible to find yourself alone watching Old Faithful hiss, gurgle and finally erupt in the twilight. Mother Nature putting on a show with the only other attendee a disinterested fox hopping on and off benches in search of some forgotten scraps.

Most wintertime visitors choose to tour the park by snowcoach or snowmobile. But there’s really no better way to become immersed in the park than with a pair of skis. There are the easy outings, such as the trails around the Upper Geyser Basin just outside of the lodge. Then there are the tougher ones, including arduous trails to the Continental Divide.


Save the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout in Yellowstone Lake

You can help.  Contribute to “Save the Yellowstone Cutthroat”.

100% of your tax deductible contribution goes toward the study.
Make Checks payable to “Save the Yellowstone Cutthroat”.
Send to:  Trout Unlimited, P.O. Box 3008, Cody, WY  82414.

For more information please call Dave Sweet, campaign coordinator, (307)527-9959.
[email protected]

or visit:



Transmitters could help kill lake trout, save cutthroat

Lake trout equipped with transmitters could betray their kin this summer as conservationists and Park Service officials escalate efforts to eradicate the species from Yellowstone Lake.

Biologists hope these so-called ‘Judas fish’ will lead them to spawning beds, where new techniques will be used to destroy the eggs and young mackinaw, aka lake trout.

The non-native lake trout were illegally introduced to Yellowstone Lake sometime in the mid-1980s and gained a foothold by 1994. The predatory species eats Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and spawning populations of the native fish have plummeted 99 percent.

After years of marginally successful efforts to kill lake trout using fishing boats and nets -— from 2001 to about 2010, park personnel have removed about 500,000 fish from Yellowstone Lake — some began looking for new solutions, said Dave Sweet, a representative of Wyoming Trout Unlimited’s East Yellowstone Chapter.

People began asking, “Isn’t there a better way to kill these lake trout?” Sweet said.

U.S. Geological Survey research biologist Robert Gresswell is working on one idea: destroying lake trout eggs before they hatch.

What makes the egg solution so promising is the difference in how lake trout and cutthroat spawn. In the fall, lake trout spawn en mass in the shallow waters of Yellowstone Lake, whereas cutthroat spawn in pairs in the spring in the lake’s tributaries. This separation means it’s possible to kill lake trout eggs without worrying about killing cutthroat eggs by mistake.

“A small increase in the mortality of young has a big effect on the population,” Gresswell said. “Only about 3 to 4 percent of the eggs that are laid each year mature to adults. If you can increase that mortality so that only 1.5 percent survive, that has a huge effect.”

The trick is locating lake trout spawning beds. To find them, Gresswell has collaborated with the Park Service to surgically implant acoustic transmitters in nearly 150 lake trout. Unlike radio waves, which send out radio signals to a receiver, the acoustic transmitters send out sound.

“Acoustic waves travel through water, and radio waves don’t very well,” Gresswell said.

The transmitters send out a sound in a radius of about 550 feet, and that sound is then picked up by 40 receivers submerged at various locations around the lake.

The data Gresswell has collected so far suggest lake trout are concentrated in the southern end of Yellowstone Lake, particularly West Thumb. Researchers think one spawning bed is located in the shallow waters surrounding Carrington Island, just north of West Thumb Geyser Basin.

“It is the tiniest of islands,” Sweet said. “It has one tree on it.”

That said, even transmitters in the most remote parts of the lake have detected fish.

The problem is that Yellowstone Lake is huge, more than 2.2 million acres.

“Ideally, we’d have around 70 to 100 receivers,” Gresswell said. “We have to put them out in lots of places.”

To get more transmitters and receivers, Trout Unlimited joined with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the National Parks Conservation Association to begin a campaign called Save the Yellowstone Cutthroat. The transmitters cost between $400 and $700, and the receivers run about $1,400. The conservation groups aim to raise $85,000 by next spring, when the ice comes off the lake.

The cost is worth it, says Scott Christensen, climate change program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

“The population of Yellowstone cutthroat in Yellowstone Lake is one of the most important populations of that fish anywhere where it still exists, especially when you look through the lens of climate change,” Christensen said.

Yellowstone Lake is more resilient than some other cutthroat habitats because it is located in a big, high-elevation basin in a national park that is “relatively pristine and free from stressors that other populations are suffering from,” Christensen said.

“Historically, it was a large, connected population,” he said. “These fish that were in the lake moved up and down the Yellowstone River and up and down the tributaries, and there were no non-native species to compete with or, in the instance of rainbow trout, to hybridize with. If we want to maintain these fish long term, Yellowstone Lake is a very important place to have a stronghold population.”

One of Gresswell’s USGS colleagues is working on ways to kill eggs and young fish at the spawning areas once they’re located. The most promising solution is a form of electro-fishing, which could be deployed as early as this fall.

Other ideas include a sort of vacuum that would suck up the eggs, “sonic guns” that would use loud sound to break them, and carbon dioxide, which is lethal to young fish just emerged from eggs.

While the vacuum and the sonic gun could take a decade or more to develop, carbon dioxide in the form of dry ice, weighted to sink to the bottom of the lake, is a good option, Gresswell said.

“That would have no negative consequences in a lake the size of Yellowstone Lake,” he said.

These technologies could eventually prove useful to suppress lake trout once the cutthroat population has recovered, Gresswell said.

While gill netting is effective now, the public might eventually lose its taste for the expense. Going after the eggs and the young lake trout could be a cost-effective solution.

“We would predict that we could hold the lake trout at a reduced level using these technologies focused on these developing young,” he said.



Yellowstone importing grizzlies to improve genetics

Yellowstone National Park says by 2022 the park may need to import grizzly bears from other regions to increase the animals’ genetic diversity.

Because the park is not close enough to other regions inhabited by grizzly bears, the park’s bears have become genetically isolated. Transplanting grizzly bears to the park to promote interbreeding could be a last resort to deal with the issue. Ideally, officials would like to see the park connected by some type of land bridge allowing bears to migrate back and forth and interbreed.

Dave Hallac, the new scientific chief for the park, said the draft progress report to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is an important way to tell the committee, as well as people of the world, how the park has been able to address the committee’s original concerns. The report is the sixth to the committee on the condition of the park since it was removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger sites in 2003.

“Increasing connectivity is tough,” Hallac said, but he said others, such as the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative, are attempting to provide such large-scale connections.

In addition to concerns about grizzly bear genetic diversity and Yellowstone Lake lake trout eradication, the report also addresses the challenges of dealing with annual winter bison migrations to Montana; how wolf hunting in surrounding states may affect the park’s wolf population; continued pressure from high visitor use; winter visitation and the effects of snowmobiling; and a more detailed understanding of the ecological role that the surrounding lands play in maintaining the park’s values, and a long-term vision and plan for integrated management of the park and its surrounding areas.

Yellowstone was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978 because of its outstanding natural and cultural values. In 1995, the committee placed Yellowstone on its list of threatened sites. To address UNESCO’s concerns, the park has provided the group with its plans and actions to address the specific conservation challenges. The World Heritage Committee will review Yellowstone’s report at its 36th session in 2012.


Yellowstone Lake below biological potential due to lake trout infestation

Despite a yearly effort that kills thousands of the big non-native trout, a much more aggressive effort is needed. This costs money, but the biological dividend would be huge because the beleaguered Yellowstone cutthroat trout, which are being eaten by the lake trout, are the prey for dozens of mammal and avian species as well as stream anglers upstream outside the the Park in Wyoming.  Lake trout provide no food for Park animals at all because they live in deep water. Nothing eats them except a few human anglers. Meanwhile the lake trout wipe out (eat) the valuable Yellowstone cutthroat that live in and spawn in shallower waters.


Rid Yellowstone Lake of lake trout and improve Park grizzly genetics

Yellowstone National Park asks for dollars to rid Yellowstone Lake of lake trout and for support to improve Park grizzly are inbred.

Yellowstone Park is looking for a million dollars a year to rid Yellowstone Lake of lake trout. It also reports (though this was already common knowledge) that the grizzly bear population of the Park and adjacent area (the  ”Greater Yellowstone”) is seriously inbred because the population is far isolated from grizzly bears to the north and has been for many years now. Even though the bear population has grown to about 600 (but now apparently stopped and perhaps begun to decline), the grizzly genetics can only go downhill without new grizzly bear genes from outside the area. This is expected to become a real problem by 2022.

The Park hopes migration corridors can be kept open to the north for bears to wander south to inhabit the Yellowstone area, intermingling with the existing bears. Unfortunately, and the AP story doesn’t tell this, but these northerly bear populations (such as Glacier N.P.) are also genetically improverished.  Perhaps a more effective plan would be to transplant bears from the far north in Canada to the Park, or if this proves too controversial, fertilize some Yellowstone grizzly sows with the semen of bears from the north.

As far as the lake trout go, despite a yearly effort that kills thousands of the big non-native trout, a much more aggressive effort is needed. This costs money, but the biological dividend would be huge because the beleaguered Yellowstone cutthroat trout that are being eaten by the lake trout are the prey for dozens of mammal and avian species as well as stream anglers upstream outside the the Park in Wyoming.  Lake trout provide no food for Park animals at all because they live deep down. Nothing eats them except a few human boat anglers. Meanwhile the lake trout wipe out (eat) the valuable Yellowstone cutthroat that live in and spawn in shallower waters.


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