The film opens with shots of Wyoming’s most remote landscapes. Jagged peaks rise in the background, valleys sweep in the foreground, a river winds through the middle.
The Thorofare, known as the farthest place away from any roads than anywhere else in the Lower 48, stretches in front of viewers.
Then you hear Dave Sweet’s voice:
“I think anytime you lose a native species, the impact on the environment is very important, but it also sets the tone that it’s OK to lose our native species. And it’s not.”
He’s talking about the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a fish that for millennia have rushed up creeks and rivers in northwest Wyoming to spawn. It’s also a species that could, realistically, have disappeared from the Thorofare.
Sweet has spent the past decade of his retirement on what can only be described as a personal crusade to help save those trout. He traveled across Wyoming, through Colorado’s Front Range and into Montana, talked to hundreds of people, sent thousands of emails and helped raise more than a million dollars. He was a dogged spokesman that put the plight of one of Wyoming’s four native cutthroat trout species on the national map.
Last summer, he and his daughter, a fisheries biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, went into the Thorofare to see for themselves the result of years of collaboration. They wanted to know if where once cutthroat trout numbers had dwindled to almost nothing they were swimming and spawning again.
It was a very personal journey – one between a father and his grown daughter. But the film was for the trout.
“It will continue to keep the problem in the lime light,” Sweet said. “This film demonstrates that while a lot of progress has been made, we’re not out of the woods.”
The final 15-minute film, called “The Return” by KGB Productions out of Jackson, debuted this year as part of the 2019 Fly Fishing Film Tour and will be shown across Wyoming.
To some, it is the embodiment of what one man can do when inspired to save a species.
Speaking for the fish
By now, the plight of Yellowstone cutthroat in the country’s first national park is old news. A species that once numbered 4 million dropped by about 90 percent largely because of predation by illegally introduced lake trout into Yellowstone Lake.
No one knows how or when, exactly, the lake trout arrived in Wyoming’s largest natural lake. Chances are they were brought by anglers from neighboring Lewis Lake. The first one was reported in 1994, and by the early 2000s, the decline of the Yellowstone cutthroat was clear.
And the impacts were more than simply the loss of a fish. Cutthroat trout were historically a primary food for everything from grizzly bears to eagles to otters. With fewer cutthroat trout in the rivers, bears turned toward other food such as elk calves. The one fish was changing an entire ecosystem.
Patricia Bigelow, a fisheries biologist with Yellowstone National Park, watched the progression first-hand. She started as a fisheries technician in Yellowstone in the early 1980s, long before anyone talked about netting lake trout adults or sterilizing lake trout embryos.
But the early 2000s, researchers began to realize the scope of the issue.
“We could tell we weren’t doing enough, but we couldn’t quite get enough science and support behind us to say what we could do and do that until 2011,” she said. “So since then, starting in 2012 we’ve really started to be effective. But it’s like trying to turn the Titanic, it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Sweet’s path toward Yellowstone cutthroat was a little different. He was a chemist working in the pharmaceutical industry before moving to Wyoming in the late 1980s to run a guest ranch near Cody. He’d fished for Yellowstone cutthroat before, but he hadn’t followed the saga through the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
By 2007, he was retired and spending much of his free time fishing, hunting and volunteering with his local Trout Unlimited chapter. That was when his daughter, Diana Miller, called him from graduate school and explained, in detail, the lake trout issue.
“It was around that time the population crash was really hitting hard,” he said. “The Park Service was certainly trying to suppress lake trout at the time but the public wasn’t aware.”
Looking back, Miller barely remembers the conversation. She and her dad talked all the time about any manner of nature issues, but this one stuck.
“It never crossed my mind it would be the moment he would dedicate his life to saving Yellowstone cutthroat.”
Winning the war
In the 12 years since Miller called her dad, the tide shifted in the battle of humans versus lake trout in Yellowstone Lake.
Through fundraising efforts by Sweet and other volunteers and nonprofit groups, Yellowstone officials were able to tag and trace lake trout to better understand where they go and how to most effectively target them. Gill netters on Yellowstone Lake pulled 25 percent fewer lake trout last year than 2017 – a sign that lake trout numbers are dwindling. Researchers are also working on ways to potentially kill embryos before they hatch. With time, and continued efforts, Bigelow believes biologists could eventually cause the lake trout population to crash.
When Sweet and his daughter went into the Thorofare, they knew these statistics. They knew more cutthroat were spawning. But they didn’t know if they would find any themselves.
That quest and resulting film became one more public relations effort on behalf of the Yellowstone cutthroat.
Because even though Sweet doesn’t need to spend nearly as much time now as he once did fighting a war on lake trout, and even though the battle shows signs of victory, this particular one will likely continue, said Bigelow and Sweet.
“We can get the population to crash, but we will never get to the point where the population will be eliminated. As we know, as long as there are two lake trout left, a male and a female, if you stop suppression entirely, the population will start growing again,” Sweet said.
But waiting for them will be volunteers like Sweet and biologists like Bigelow ready to continue the fight.