“I know what you’re thinking,” Steve tells me. “I came all the way to Wyoming for this?”
I look down from the deep head cut at the trickle of water below. It’s, maybe, eighteen inches wide and no more than six deep. The red earth stream bed is pounded flat by the desert sun and the flow is about what a bath tub faucet would produce. A good skipping stone would pass for structure. I can’t imagine how it could hold a trout. Steve is right.
“Give it a chance,” he tells me. His eyes sparkle and an eager smile spreads across his face. “At some point today, this little stream is going to surprise you.”
Red creek is one of a handful of tiny streams that drain Wyoming’s Little Mountain district. The area is better known by sportsmen for its remarkable elk hunting than its fishing. You don’t have to spend very long there to see why a Little Mountain elk tag is one of the most coveted in the west. We see several large bachelor groups on the drive in. They are poised, heads held high and moving light on their hooves, the sun on their velvet racks etching bright gold lines against the morning sky. There are mule deer, eagle, antelope and nesting hawks. The landscape is idyllic, vast, striking and uninhabited. Endless red hills covered with sage brush are slashed by lush green valleys dotted with wild flowers. It’s an oasis for the eyes in a state that can be rough as a cob.
Little Mountain is due east from the famous Flaming Gorge of the Green River. Anglers come from around the globe to float the Green below Flaming Gorge reservoir. The tail water is well known to hold huge trout, as does the reservoir. Rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout as well as carp and the invasive burbot. Lake trout, brook and tiger trout, kokanee salmon, small mouth bass, large mouth bass, catfish and white fish all inhabit the 3,789,000 acre-feet of Flaming Gorge Reservoir. It’s a manmade cacophony of nonnative species, never imagined in nature. Few of the anglers who fish it know that only a few miles east, the beautiful and fragile native Colorado River Cutthroat (CRC) is making its last stand.
Red Creek is known to hold one of the few genetically pure CRC populations in Wyoming. Years ago game and fish officials stocked most streams in the west with cutthroat trout. Their good intentions lead to disastrous results. The practice would go on for decades before scientists began to identify the myriad of sub-species that make up the cutthroat family. By the time this complicated diversity was understood, hybridization had muddled the genetics of cutthroat in most watersheds.
The CRC population in Red Creek was saved by an unlikely intervention. An improperly installed culvert at a road crossing where Red Creek and Trout Creek converge created a barrier that prevented stocked fish from reaching Red Creek. Thus a poor road crew spared Red Creek the disaster created by the good intentions of the Department of Game and Fish. Wyoming, it seems, is a land of many ironies.
I don’t have to wait very long for Red Creek to surprise me. We gear up and hike to a nice looking bend and are treated to a view of trout, finning lazily in the middle of the stream. They are surprisingly nice fish. Eight to twelve inches in length with gold, speckled flanks and bright red bellies. Steve creeps quietly into position and makes a cast. His fly lands in the grass at the edge of the stream and the trout vanish. Again I am surprised. Not only is this tiny stream full of fish, much larger fish than I would ever have expected, but they will prove to be devilishly difficult to catch. They are wary enough to make approaching them a serious challenge and landing a fly, actually in the stream, at any distance is maddeningly difficult. In spots there is only a gap of several inches in the stream-side grass through which to drop your fly and the Wyoming wind is ever present.
When we do catch fish they are some of the most beautiful cutthroats I’ve ever seen. It’s easy to see the importance of pure genetics. The color of these fish is striking. Vivid red, gold and green with sparsely spotted flanks. They are nicely proportioned with full fins. They are healthy and fight well.
Seeing the beauty of these wild fish, thriving in the place where they belong, it is easy to picture a time when things were right with the world. A time before we began to drain the earth of its resources at any cost. A time before we began paving the land and building sky scrapers. A time when a man could look at the earth and see his natural place in it. A time when we could fill our days with the love of our family, with teaching our children to put food on the table and care for each other. A time when we breathed sweet air and drank cold water straight from the stream. A time when we were as happy in the place God made for us as those beautiful little trout. A time before we moved into the cacophony of the city, like those fish in the reservoir.
Looking at those beautiful fish, cut off from our world by a poorly installed culvert, it is easy to see how much we have lost. Red Creek has done more than surprise me. It has struck me to my core.
Red Creek’s time may not last much longer. That’s why I’m here. To see this hidden gem before it’s gone, maybe to help. A complex web of natural gas leases threaten to change the face of Little Mountain forever and the only thing standing in the way are a handful of passionate folks from The Greater Little Mountain Coalition. An energetic group of sportsmen’s organizations and concerned citizens. Not the least of these is my fishing companion, Steve Brutger.
Steve is gentle in his manner. Sincere and soft spoken, he is patient and tenacious. Humble, he tells me “I’m not as good a caster as you,” though he clearly is. He has the quiet resolve of a man who has handled horses since he was old enough to stand and the discipline that comes with hunting long Wyoming winters. He is more at home in front of a campfire than a television. He loves his wife and children, he loves a good malt, and he loves Wyoming’s wild trout.
Steve understands the complex issues of energy leasing in a way that boggles my mind. As the energy liaison for Trout Unlimited in Wyoming, it’s his job to sit across the table from energy company executives and bargain for our natural legacy. Steve is very good at his job. He is a consensus builder. Where I see evil tycoons, he sees hard working guys who love to hunt and fish, just like he does. He understands our country’s need for energy and he understands the need for wild trout. He spends his days focusing on the positive and bargaining over every square on the map. Bargaining for the lives of fish and elk and deer. Sorting patiently through the grains of sand in the Wyoming desert, searching for a future for the CRC.
One glance at the Wyoming map tells the story. Years ago when the railroad was built, the government struck a deal. What must have seemed like a reasonable compromise at the time turned out to be the source of eternal conflict. To appease the railroad, the government deeded every other parcel of land to them and held every other parcel for the public. The decision created a checkerboard of land ownership so protracted it left large parts of the state in limbo. Too restricted to develop, but not restricted enough to save. In practice it’s not a checkerboard at all, but a chess board on which a high stakes game is played.
The GLMC and TU have chosen to focus their efforts on the land just off the checkerboard. Little Mountain, the stronghold of the CRC. It would be a mistake to consider this simple. The same clarity of land ownership that appeals to TU, appeals to the energy companies. In fact, there is a web of existing leases already in place and the threat to the native trout streams, including Red Creek, is a real and present danger.
On the drive to Little Mountain we tour the Jonah gas field, south west of Pinedale. The Jonah field is one of the largest in the state. It runs from highway 191, near the Wind Range west to the Wyoming Range, encompassing much of the Green River Basin. From the highway it does not appear to have much impact. Just a few scattered wells. Once inside the field, the picture is very different. The density of wells is alarming.
Truck traffic on the dirt access roads stir up sand storms that choke vegetation. Pools of poisonous hydro-carbons stand near well heads. Much of the equipment seems neglected. The area was once home to the largest mule deer population in Wyoming. Their habitat destroyed and crawling with truck traffic, the deer have fled to the mountains and most have starved. What was once a sportsmen’s paradise is now a barren gas field.
It is worth a reminder that these are public lands. Our lands, now an utter waste.
Several energy companies own leases in the Little Mountain District that threaten Red Creek and Trout Creek. With the price of natural gas low, the energy companies would rather not exercise those leases, but under the system they must ‘use it or loose it.’ If they don’t start the process within ten years of buying the lease, the leases become void. Some of those leases are very close to that deadline, putting pressure on the energy companies to drill wells they don’t need. Encouraging them to make Little Mountain the next Jonah.
The GLMC’s objective is to mitigate the damage in Little Mountain. Firstly, appeal to the energy companies to use discretion in developing the leases they already own. Secondly, limit the sale of new leases in the Little Mountain District, and thirdly, to urge the energy companies to let leases that threaten critical drainages lapse in favor of leases that do not threaten crucial habitat. If successful, a safe zone could be created for Little Mountain’s native trout.
It’s a strategy that’s hard to swallow for the purist. It involves sacrificing some of our public lands to the evil tycoons, but it’s a wise strategy. It’s a plan that can succeed. It’s a plan drawn up by consensus builders. It’s the best chance for saving Wyoming’s native trout.
I am in awe of the hard working souls at Trout Unlimited and The Greater Little Mountain Coalition. They have embraced the complexity of the system. They have met the energy companies where they live. They have reached out to the hard working guys who love to hunt and fish and appealed to their love of the outdoors. Their love of their children and the hope that there will be wild places left for them to enjoy.
Like beavers building a dam one stick at a time, they have broken down the issues and offered resistance where it’s needed. They have held back the flood of greed and created a place for the native trout.
I hope I will return to Little Mountain one day and I hope the CRC will be there to greet me. That’s far from a sure bet. There is much work to be done and TU can’t do it by themselves. We must all get involved. This land does not belong to the energy companies. It does not even belong to the people of Wyoming. It belongs to all of us and it is our responsibility to protect it.
If there is hope for the CRC, there is hope for us. Hope that one day we might once again find the place God made for us. Hope that we might once again be free in the place we were meant to be. If that is what we want, it will not be easy. There will be sacrifice. We will have to work for it. One stick at a time.
As the sun drops behind Little Mountain and I hold my last cutthroat trout in my hand, as he slides from my fingers back into the water of Red Creek, I feel sad. As if a piece of me, a piece of my heart is swimming away with him. If I had one wish it would be that some careless soul would build me a culvert and cut me off from this big cruel world. Let me swim in my tiny little creek where I belong. Let me be what I was meant to be and swim, wild and free, in Red Creek forever. That would be the greatest surprise of all.
Little Mountain needs your help. Make your voice heard by joining the Greater Little Mountain Coalition and Trout Unlimited. Together our voices can turn the tide for wild places like Red Creek and insure that our children will have elk to hunt and wild trout to catch.
Write the Wyoming BLM and ask them to help protect the native trout in Little Mountain.
PO Box 1828, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82003-1828