The Yellowstone Fly Fishing Volunteer Program was conceived in 2002 as a way Yellowstone’s biologists could acquire information about fish populations without having to travel to distant locations throughout the park and sample the populations themselves using electrofishing or other sophisticated gear. Yellowstone National Park contains an estimated 4,265 km (2,650 mi.) of streams and more than 150 lakes, many of which support native fish populations that could be monitored; however, emerging resource concerns such as the invasion of non-native lake trout and whirling disease occupy progressively more time and financial resources of the park’s fisheries program. As a way to sample fish populations and address fisheries issues park biologists would otherwise not be able to do, the fly fishing volunteers use angling to gather and archive information and biological samples.
Each year, a list of projects is developed by park biologists, so volunteers can focus their efforts. In its early years, the program was led by Timothy Bywater, an avid fly fisher and supporter of Yellowstone’s native fish conservation program. William Voigt, also an avid fly fisher, joined the program in 2004 and eventually took over the job of program coordinator. Over the years, hundreds of fly fishers have volunteered with the program. These volunteers are important to the conservation of Yellowstone’s native fish in a myriad of ways. They provide data and collect samples in important project areas, as well as in areas we may not know much about. They also play an important role in communicating with the public. They interact with tourists and other fly fishers on a regular basis and are able to discuss important topics, such as park fishing regulations, the reasoning behind some of the more controversial restoration projects, and why native fish are an important resource in Yellowstone.
How They ContributeThe volunteer fly fishing program attracts anglers from all across the United States, many of whom choose to come back year after year. Since the start of the program, 914 volunteers have contributed almost 23,000 hours to support native fish conservation in Yellowstone (figure 1). Of the 914 volunteers, 309 have returned for more than one season. These volunteers perform a wide range of duties in assisting the Yellowstone fisheries program, providing everything from logistical support to extensive sample collection. Collectively, program volunteers have sampled 7,000 fish since 2002 via angling. Data collected from each fish is recorded on datasheets and archived in computer databases. Along with fish lengths, weights, condition, and other basic data, volunteers also collect biological samples to be later processed in a laboratory. For example, volunteers have been integral in collecting genetic samples from various locations. Most notably, the samples they collected from the Lamar River and Slough and Soda Butte creeks aided park managers in understanding the extent of cutthroat trout hybridization in these drainages, thus contributing to subsequent management decisions. Other genetic sampling efforts across the park have been used to confirm or dismiss the presence of hybridization in a population, again aiding park biologists in management decisions. Between 2007 and 2014, volunteers collected 263 genetic samples from the Slough Creek drainage alone.
The volunteer fly fishers also provide invaluable support for fish tagging projects, such as those conducted on the Gibbon and Lamar rivers. These projects provide information on the life history and movement of species, such as Arctic grayling (Gibbon River) and rainbow trout and cutthroat rainbow trout hybrids (Lamar River and Slough and Soda Butte creeks). The collection of fish large enough to tag and for insertion of the tag itself can be an arduous process. During 2015, the volunteer fly fishing program caught and tagged approximately 220 fish in the Lamar River system. With the help of the volunteer program, biologists and collaborating graduate students were able to work more efficiently and effectively, ultimately providing managers with the best data possible.
Since the start of the program, volunteers have also assisted with several other projects, including removal of non-native species, evaluation of fish barrier efficacy and success, a study to determine injury and mortality rates when using barbed versus barbless hooks, surveys to determine species composition, and logistical support for large multi-agency projects.