Over the past few months, various government agencies have debated poisoning 38 miles of Soda Butte Creek in southern Montana in order to eradicate brook trout, an invasive species that is compromising the genetic integrity of the Yellowstone Cutthroat. The proposed action would kill every fish in the river, which would then be restocked with purebred Yellowstone Cutthroat. This plan has brought on heavy opposition from locals, who say the brook trout “problem” is way overrated.
Driving out to Montana recently, I found myself in Cooke City, a small town on Route 212 on the banks of Soda Butte Creek. I remembered having read about the proposed action on Soda Butte in Hatch Magazine, and decided to stop in Cooke City for the night to get a sense of the debate first-hand.
Not having enough money for a motel room, I asked a motel owner if I could set up my tent on her lawn. In typical Montana hospitality, she showed me to her garage and set up a cot there for me to sleep on. With my sleeping situation taken care of, I headed across the street to the Miner’s Saloon, a Grateful Dead themed bar, to have some beers and talk fishing. It didn’t take long to steer the conversation towards the poisoning of Soda Butte Creek, which was laughed at in this predominantly local bar.
“I’ve been fishing here 22 years” said the bartender, “and I’ve only ever caught 1 brook trout”. There was a resounding murmur of agreement.
“All we have to do is tell all the fishermen to kill brook trout and the problem will be solved in no time”, said someone else.
However, the concept of the ‘backwards release’ has been employed for brook trout in Soda Butte Creek for some time now, but that has not been enough to completely eradicate the invasive Brookies. The park services have also been electro-fishing in Soda Butte since the ‘90s, removing stunned brook trout from the river. All of this has not been enough to stamp out the wily brook trout.
The poisoning, jointly sponsored by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service would be done with EPA approved rotenone. Notably, the introduction of the piscicide to Soda Butte Creek also has the support of Montana’s Trout Unlimited chapter. This is not the first time a stream poisoning has been proposed, and prior poisonings have successfully restored native trout populations.
From a local point of view, the poisoning of Soda Butte would mean there would be no fishing there for some time. The fishery would have to rejuvenate itself after being stocked with Yellowstone Cutties. For a small fishing town like Cooke City, this would spell financial disaster.
The debate still goes on. Are government agencies over-reacting, or is the possible contamination of the unique Yellowstone cutthroat by brook trout too precious to take chances on? As of now, the government is committed to the poisoning, which is scheduled to take place next month.
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