June 4, 2021
Some decisions we make influence our lives significantly. Like taking the road less traveled, they make all the difference. In my life one of those was traveling to Yellowstone for work the spring after my college graduation. It wasn’t on my radar at that time that I might be here 42 years later. My comment for many is “beware, Yellowstone can hook you and reel you in!” Below is a photo from 1980 when I had an opportunity to work with biologists in Yellowstone’s research office through a program called Young Adult Conservation Corps….YACC
After many twists and turns and wonderful opportunities, some of the people I came to know early in my Park Service years are still my closest friends. For this GYE news I want to tell you a story about one of those people who is an integral part of the Lake Trout Suppression Program in Yellowstone. Lake Trout are an invasive fish thriving in Yellowstone Lake where they prey upon native Cutthroat Trout, decimating that population since they were first discovered in Yellowstone Lake in 1994. Other than the perpetrator, nobody knows how they came to be here, and probably never will.
This story goes farther than impacting numbers of “Cutts”. Cutthroat Trout live in the more shallow layers of the lake and Lake Trout live deep except when they are lurking near the surface killing and eating the native fish.
For millennia many species of birds and mammals have depended on Cutthroat as a food source. Osprey, Eagles, Loons are a few. Bears have fed on spawning Cutthroat in the spring, Harlequin Ducks feed on their eggs, river otters, mink and many more have depended on these. Once the populations started to drop all of these species had to turn to other sources of nutrition. Biologists started observing Bald Eagles going for cygnets (young Trumpeter Swans) and young Common loons. Populations and habitats of so many of these birds and mammals are being impacted. It’s all connected, right? The web of life.
Now, after over 25years of a Lake Trout suppression program things are changing. Pat Bigelow, longtime friend, and a team of others have implemented a program of netting these “unwelcome in Yellowstone Lake aliens”. Since 2009, the park has contracted with an experienced commercial fishing company to employ their boats with the “big guns”,, long, deep water gill nets have become part of the team of lake trout suppression engineers. Last year, more than 300,000 lake trout were removed from the lake. Understand nobody is “commercially fishing” in Yellowstone. Most of the Lake trout carcasses are dumped back into the lake in deep water and sink to the bottom where they become part of the energy cycle (decompose). To date, almost 4 million Lake trout have been removed from this beautiful lake.
Yellowstone Lake in May just after “ice off”
Recent summers Cutthroat Trout populations are looking up. More cutthroat are caught in nets and released (alive). We are beginning to see more bear actively fishing for Cutthroat on spawning tributaries again. The persistence and dedication of the fisheries staff, along with a lot of support, including funding, from private interests, has kept this program going for over 15 years. It’s beginning to pay off. Of course, I’m biased, but Pat is a huge force behind this energy.
Pat grew up on a dairy farm in central which instilled a love of hard work in her. Once she has a goal, it will come to fruition in some form. She never gives up. It seems this, in part, is a product of her upbringing. When we first met working for the Young Adult Conservation Corps in the “Research Office” at Yellowstone, I remember her saying “cows are cute”, with a giggle. She now adds “fish are fun” as her part of her mantra. Pat returned to Yellowstone 20 years ago after a number of years working for the Fish and Wildlife Service in other states to work on the initial planning of this project.
Not long after her return to Yellowstone, she completed a PhD program that added to her experience and knowledge about this huge endeavor. A few years ago, Pat was honored by the Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society for her career achievements in fisheries science.
Below are some comments written by other scientists she has worked with through time.
“We are delighted to nominate Pat Bigelow for the Career Achievement Award. Pat grew up in Vermont on a dairy farm where her parents Don and Margaret instilled the work ethic that Pat has carried through her career and life…Pat has been an excellent supervisor, biologist, mentor, friend, pie baker…Pat’s understanding of the Yellowstone Lake ecosystem, and constant collaboration with researchers and other park staff is a driving force behind higher catch rates each year. Her happy demeanor is a major factor in fostering relationships with the many divisions in the Park.” ABOVE is Pat pulling Lake Trout out of deep set traps
Pat Bigelow is one of the many women who have been part of federal service and dedicated her life to truly “making this country great”.
Might I add, on top of all these professional accolades she is a forever friend who I really consider family. We have had many memorable adventures and “mis”-adventures together, beginning in Yellowstone and extending to as far away as the foothills of the Himalayas and to the southern tip of Africa! Another legendary bit of heritage she carries with her from her upbringing in Vermont is the fact she is one of the best pie makers on the planet!
Working for the National Park Service, one comes to know many dedicated individuals who are not just making a living, they are making a life.
Below is a photo of one of many adventures with friends at 16,000 feet.
Jomolhari mountain, “bride of Kangchenjunga”
My hope is to do a few more profiles of friends who have lived their lives dedicated to our National Parks or other public lands. You all know who you are! I’ll be contacting you.
Wishing you all happy solar eclipse watching June 10th if you are in the eastern half of North America. https://earthsky.org/tonight/annular-solar-eclipse-on-june-10-2021/
As always, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org