Lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) are native to Canada, Alaska, the Great Lakes, New England, and parts of Montana. Lake trout were intentionally stocked in Lewis and Shoshone lakes in 1890 by the U.S. Fish Commission (a predecessor of today’s US Fish & Wildlife Service). The species was first documented in Yellowstone Lake in 1994. Evidence from chemical patterns in lake trout ear bones sampled in the late 1990s indicate that the initial stock originated from nearby Lewis Lake some time in the 1980s. Despite major efforts to remove them by gillnetting, the lake trout have had a significant ecological impact on the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, an important food for other native animals. Lake trout differ from cutthroat trout as potential prey because they can grow larger, occupy deeper areas of the lake, and spawn in the lake instead of in shallow tributaries.
Population in Yellowstone Lake
Lake trout are a serious threat to the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout population and, as a result, the National Park Service (NPS) has worked to suppress the population. Although lake trout need energy-rich prey to continue to grow, they can persist for years with minimal food resources. Nonnative lake trout could decimate the native cutthroat trout population and then persist at high numbers on other foods, giving cutthroat trout no chance to recover. Lake trout also consume foods that have historically fed cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake, thereby making cutthroat trout recovery impossible until the lake trout population is suppressed.
In 1995, after confirming lake trout were successfully reproducing in Yellowstone Lake, the NPS convened a panel of expert scientists to determine the likely extent of the problem, recommend actions, and identify research needs. The panel recommended that the park suppress lake trout in order to protect and restore native cutthroat trout. The panel also indicated that direct removal efforts such as gillnetting or trapnetting would be most effective but would require a long-term, possibly perpetual, commitment.
Lake trout gillnetting begins as ice is leaving the lake in spring and continues into October. Gillnet operations remove lake trout from the population and also provide valuable data—population estimates, age structure, maturity, and potential new spawning areas—leading to more effective control. Incidental catch of native cutthroat trout is minimized by fishing deeper waters not typically used by cutthroat trout.
As initial gillneting efforts expanded, the number of lake trout removed from the population also increased. This suggested the lake trout population was continuing to grow. In 2008 and 2011, scientific panels were convened to re-evaluate the program and goals. The panel concluded netting is still the most viable option for suppressing lake trout. Both reviews also indicated a considerable increase in suppression effort would be needed over many years to collapse the lake trout population.
Starting in 2009, the park contracted a commercial fishing company, to increase the take of lake trout through gillnetting. From 2011 to 2013, they also used large, live-entrapment nets that allow removal of large lake trout from shallow water while returning cutthroat trout to the lake with little mortality.
Anglers are encouraged to fish for lake trout, and are required to kill all lake trout caught in Yellowstone Lake and its tributaries. Of the total lake trout removed from Yellowstone Lake, anglers have removed approximately five percent.
Lake Trout Response to Increased Suppression Efforts
More than 4.3 million lake trout have been removed from Yellowstone Lake since 1994. In 2022, National Park Service and contracted gill net crews captured almost 281,500 lake trout—42% caught in the smallest nets used. Catches of lake trout in the larger meshes increased in 2022. Numbers have been decreasing steadily since a peak of 69,000 in 2016, dropping as low as 30,820 in 2021, indicating a continued population decline in mature fish. Catch rate in these meshes dropped dramatically from 3.4 lake trout per net night in 2012 to less than 0.7 in 2021. However, two strong year classes, produced in 2017 and 2018 have grown to sizes large enough to now be caught in these larger meshes. In 2022, these meshes caught 56,500 lake trout with a catch rate of 1.2 lake trout per net night.
Despite these increases, total season catch was down over 45,000 lake trout with gill net catch rates dropping from a high of 7.8 in 2011 to 3.5 in 2021 and to 3.2 lake trout per net night in 2022, signs of continued progress of decreasing lake trout population in Yellowstone Lake. Increases in catch can reflect increased efficiency, increased abundance, or both. Improvements in gear, knowledge, and experience can lead to more efficient removal, despite a decreasing population. Hence, independently monitoring the effectiveness of suppression activities with standardized assessments, as well as updating population models, is an important aspect of the program.
The number of lake trout caught during standardized assessment surveys have also shown a decreasing trend from 2011 to 2021, with catch rates ranging from almost 5 lake trout per unit of effort to a low of less than 2 in 2018 and just over 2 in 2021.
Discovery of New Species in Yellowstone Lake
On August 22, 2019, a gill net set in 158 feet of water northeast of Stevenson Island captured one fish of a new species not previously known to exist in Yellowstone Lake. This was a 3-year-old immature female cisco (Coregonus artedi). Based on otolith microchemistry, it likely hatched in Yellowstone Lake. Undoubtedly this species was illegally introduced to Yellowstone Lake, as the nearest source populations are in northern Montana and Minnesota. There are no existing waterways between Yellowstone Lake and any known cisco populations.
In its native range, cisco are a preferred prey item for lake trout where the two species overlap. They prey mostly on aquatic invertebrates and tend to reside at mid-water depths. Fortunately, despite miles of gill nets, some specifically targeting cisco habitat, surface tows for larvae, eDNA sampling at 24 sites around the lake, and examination of thousands of lake trout stomachs, no other cisco have been found in Yellowstone Lake.
Research guides methodology
In 2010, Yellowstone developed the Native Fish Conservation Plan. This adaptive management plan guides efforts to recover native fish and restore natural ecosystem functions based on scientific assessment.
In 2011, the National Park Service and the US Geological Survey launched a movement study to target lake trout embryos in spawning beds and identify general and seasonal movement patterns. The results helped gillnet operators to target lake trout more efficiently.
In 2013, NPS and Montana State University conducted a mark/recapture study of lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. In order to estimate population size, 2,400 lake trout were tagged and released back into the lake. More than 5% of tagged fish were recaptured within the same fishing season. Results produced an estimate of the number of lake trout present in the lake: 367,650 fish greater than 210 millimeters (8.3 in.) long.
The mark-recapture study also helped estimate rates of capture for four size classes. This effort removed 72% of lake trout 210–451 millimeters (8.3–17.8 in.) in length, 56% for fish 451–541 millimeters (17.8–21.3 in.) long, 48% for fish 541–610 millimeters (21.3–24.0 in.) long, and 45% for fish more than 610 millimeters (>24.0 in.) long. These results supported previous estimates and highlighted the difficultly in catching older, mature lake trout, which eat the most native cutthroat trout and have the highest reproductive success. In 2022, we caught three lake trout which had originally been tagged in 2013 as part of this study.
Future of Lake Trout Control
With current technology, lake trout probably cannot be eliminated from Yellowstone Lake. However, ongoing management of the problem can significantly reduce the lake trout population and maintain the cutthroat trout population, a critical ecological link between Yellowstone Lake and its surrounding landscape.
Reducing the lake trout population to a level predicted to have only minor impacts to the cutthroat trout population is expected to occur in the next few years—provided we maintain current high levels of suppression effort. Given the high reproductive potential of this lake trout population, it will rebound immediately and dramatically if we reduce the suppression effort.
Present research efforts by Yellowstone National Park biologists and collaborating scientists at the USGS Montana Cooperative Fishery Research Unit and Montana State University focus on killing lake trout embryos on spawning sites. Although undoubtedly more, to date, only 50 acres of lake trout spawning areas have been identified: by gillnetting, tracking tagged fish, visual observations during SCUBA diving, and remote observations with underwater cameras.
Several techniques have been tried: suffocation by decomposing carcass material, covering with tarps, burying in sediment, removing the eggs by suction dredging, and electrocution. The most promising of these techniques uses pellets of vegetative materials deposited over the spawning site. Limited research has shown these are less of an attractant to bears, easier to handle, and effective at killing embryos. Although modeling has shown this not to be effective at population reduction, it could be important in keeping the population from rebounding once suppression goals are met and gillnetting is reduced.
Bigelow, P.E. 2009. Predicting areas of lake trout spawning habitat within Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming. Doctoral dissertation, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY.
Gresswell, R.E. 2009. Scientific review panel evaluation of the National Park Service lake trout suppression program in Yellowstone Lake, August 25–29, 2008: Final report, October 2009, Edited by USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center. Bozeman, MT.
Koel, T.M., P.E. Bigelow, P.D. Doepke, B.D. Ertel, and D.L. Mahony. 2005. Nonnative lake trout result in Yellowstone cutthroat trout decline and impacts to bears and anglers. Fisheries 30(11):10–19.
Koel, T.M., P.E. Bigelow, P.D. Doepke, B.D. Ertel, and D.L. Mahony. 2006. Conserving Yellowstone cutthroat trout for the future of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Yellowstone’s Aquatic Sciences Program. Yellowstone Science 14(2).
Middleton, A.D., T.A. Morrison, J.K. Fortin, M.J. Kauffman, C.T. Robbins, K.M. Proffitt, P.J. White, D.E. McWhirter, T.M. Koel, D. Brimeyer, and W.S. Fairbanks. 2013. Grizzly bears link non-native trout to migratory elk in Yellowstone. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280:20130870.
Munro, A.R., T.E. McMahon, and J.R. Ruzycki. 2006. Where did they come from?: Natural chemical markers identify source and date of lake trout introduction in Yellowstone Lake. Yellowstone Science 14(2).
Wyoming Water Project. 2014. Science supporting management of Yellowstone Lake fisheries: Responses to frequently asked questions. Trout Unlimited: Lander, WY.
Ruzycki, J.R., D.A. Beauchamp, and D.L. Yule. 2003. Effects of introduced lake trout on native cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake. Ecological Applications 13:23–37.
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Last updated: May 8, 2023