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Remote corner of lake is trout battleground

Aug 30, 2013 - By Brett French, The Associated Press

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK -- In a wide delta hemmed in by 8,000-foot mountains, the Yellowstone River pours its nourishing waters into the Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake.

This is a remote area, seen by few of the 3 million visitors to Yellowstone National Park each year, but these cool, deep waters may be the next battleground for the preservation of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Recently, the commercial netting boat Northwester spent two days in the remote area, setting and pulling up mesh nets to capture lake trout. The park's fisheries biologists were hoping to get an idea of the number of lake trout in the arm, as well as an indication of how many cutthroat trout they were eating.

"The lake trout are staging at the mouth of the Yellowstone and Beaverdam Creek and eating the young cutthroats as they come back into the lake," said Pat Bigelow, a Yellowstone fisheries biologist who oversaw the netting.

The boat had to get special permission to work in the Southeast Arm, which contains a large non-motorized zone to protect the wilderness characteristics of the area.

"The thought is that we get these big pulses of cutthroat trout down in here and the lake trout stage in an area where we don't have a net," said Todd Koel, Yellowstone's supervisory fisheries biologist. "It's kind of a refuge for the lake trout, which I think is going to change."

Since efforts began in 1998 to remove nonnative lake trout from Yellowstone Lake to protect native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, most of the efforts had been concentrated in the lake's West Thumb. Those deeper waters were shown to hold the most fish, so targeting that area made sense. And netting in deeper waters avoided a by-catch of cutthroat trout, which tend to live in shallower regions of the lake.

Although that effort has been successful, over time the netting has expanded to include trap nets in shallow areas and concentration at lake trout spawning areas in the fall. This year's netting operation is being undertaken by three contract boats and one Park Service boat, the most ever.

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