Column: Sport fishing and conservation


Like many of you, I have participated in recreational fishing in this area for most of my life, which has given me the opportunity to experience the ups and downs of fish catching in our lakes and streams commensurate with changes of fishery management.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) is charged with the responsibility of developing a quality fishery throughout the state and they work very hard to maintain a quality fishery for residents and visitors. The WGFD’s efforts support outdoor recreation, an important industry for our state, and as this source of revenue expands, we need to determine the best way to protect and conserve our aquatic resources. Pertaining to sport fishing, early fishery management was often totally focused on making more sport fish available to the anglers and the tenets of conservation and preservation were overlooked for the most part. Delving into the early history of sport fishing in juxtaposition with conservation you will find significant shifts in attitudes, planning and management of these issues.
As time went on, all parties recognized the need to make sure sport fishing and conservation initiatives moved forward together and not exclusive of each other. 

Most fishers, local or visitors, are not that interested in the history or current philosophy surrounding recreational fishing and conservation of aquatic species. They want to visit a pristine stream or lake, absorb nature and have an opportunity to hook a game fish. I believe it would be good, particularly for locals, to have an understanding of the complexities of managing recreational fishing in conjunction with conservation and how it relates to the water they are currently fishing.

WGFD has employed fish stocking programs since the early 1900s to enrich and maintain a viable sport fishery for the state. A constant issue facing the department was dealing with competition between game fish and what were perceived as trash or predator fish in the waterways. In the early 60s the Bureau of Reclamation decided to construct two dams on the Upper Green River, the Fontenelle Reservoir and the Flaming Gorge Dam. The WGFD deemed this a good opportunity to rid the Upper Green River basin of “trash” fish and restock the system with game fish. They planned and executed a massive eradication program to kill all fish from the headwaters of the Green and its tributaries down to the Flaming Gorge Dam site. Then they restocked the system with a variety of sport fish.
The results were mixed, depending on which biologist or scientist offered an opinion. Loud criticism came from conservationists who pointed out the program killed what they perceived were precious native fish that might become extinct.  This concern, along with other conservation troubles with similar projects throughout the nation, raised the debate to a national level. This gave the conservation supporters the ammunition to pressure Congress to act and the result was the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1976.  Perhaps if managers of the Green River project and similar fishery programs had considered conservation options, it may have precluded establishing a federal mandate and the creation of a bureaucracy to manage the program. 

Moving forward to present-day fishery management programs, WGFD continues to use treatment techniques to control unwanted fish in streams and lakes throughout the state. These projects are smaller in scope compared to the Green River Basin project discussed above and the department includes conservation elements in their plans. A couple samples of treatment projects designed to protect native/indigenous species in our area are the LaBarge Creek and Big Sandy programs.
The LaBarge Creek project initiated in 2004 involved creating a preserve for a pure strain of Colorado River cutthroat (CRC) trout thought to be indigenous to this drainage. A fish barrier was constructed at the base of this preserve area to keep non-native species from penetrating the CRC zone. Sport fish were salvaged and moved to an area below the barrier and the area above the barrier was treated with rotenone, a natural pesticide, which eradicated all fish in the preservation zone. A pure strain of CRC was then planted in the preserve. The project objectives seem to have been met; however, there are problems with the CRC propagation that were planted in this preserve area. The jury is still out on the quality of the sport fishing.

Another project was initiated by WGFD in the fall of 2021 on the Big Sandy River above the Big Sandy Reservoir. The goal was to create a zone favorable to the propagation of three species of fish (roundtail chub, flannelmouth and bluehead suckers) thought to be indigenous to this waterway. A fish barrier was constructed near the inflow to the Big Sandy Reservoir to keep non-native fish from entering the sucker preserve. Prior to the rotenone treatment, WGFD conducted electro-shock operations to salvage the native suckers and, at the insistence of private landowners, also salvaged game fish in this zone. The treatment was conducted to eliminate non-native fish that would inter-breed with the native suckers or compete for their habitat. The salvaged sport fish will be returned back into the river next spring, along with additional sport fish provided by the WGFD for the next four years. 

The reason for discussing the fishery projects above is to call your attention to the complex challenges of maintaining a good balance when dealing with sport fishing and conservation issues. The effort and resources devoted to program development and management of projects associated with these two elements is significant. The next time you visit your favorite fishing hole, think about what all has transpired to making it a pleasing experience. As a consumer and/or advocate, do not hesitate to comment to public officials if you think there are problems with policies or projects that have an adverse impact on either sport fishing or conservation issues.