Big Trouble in Little Mountain

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A View of Red Creek Photo by Louis Cahill

A View of Red Creek Photo by Louis Cahill

“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.”

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

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.

•Join the GLMC

•Like GLMC on Facebook

•Join TU

Write the Wyoming BLM and ask them to help protect the native trout in Little Mountain.

Don Simpson, Wyoming BLM State Director
5353 Yellowstone Road, Cheyenne WY 82009
PO Box 1828, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82003-1828
Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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15 thoughts on “Big Trouble in Little Mountain

  1. Louis:

    This is an absolutely awesome depiction of what has taken place in WY and other places in the west. I lived near Riverton, WY for 10 years back in the early 80’s and fished probably every fishable water in western WY, including Red Creek. I fondly recall fishing many a stream like Red Creek that you could literally step across and yet caught some amazing fish and created lots of fond memories. Your pictures conjured up lots of fond memories of fishing Red Creek.

    I also spent a LOT of time in northwest WY working and always had my fly rod handy for off hours. I still have friends in Pinedale and went through that part of the state about a year ago. I was appalled at what “progress” has done to what used to be a very natural pristine area. And what we can see is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Thanks for your compassionate appeal for us all to make our voices heard to prevent Little Mountain from becoming the next Jonah debacle and thanks for the trip down memory lane. I also wish we could go back to a “kinder gentler” time in our history. I will, definitely do my part for Little Mountain!!

  2. Great article and story, also very painful. Here in central New York we are fighting to stop natural gas extraction via hydro-fracturing (Fracking) of the Marcellus Shale Deposits.

    Interestingly enough, it seems that the people who rely on the land the most, farmers and hunters, are the major supporters of the Gas industry. While those of us who value the water, fisherman and boaters, are worried about the impact of the drilling process and waste. There is more to it than that and the split is evidenced along other lines as well: urban vs. rural, low-income vs. high-income, etc.

    It scares me that we are so willing to give-up our environment, and your pictures and words about the scenery of the gas fields is sobering. Hopefully we will not let that happen here in New York. Wyoming, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, all seem to have horror stories of the negative impact of gas/oil drilling. And yet, we do not seem to learn.

    Our forests are filled with deer, bear, fox, and more. Our streams are clean, clear and cold, supporting trout, salmon and a host of other fish. The drilling, traffic and pollutants can destroy all of this near my home.

    Thank your for the words, and for rekindling the fire.

  3. Good article, but to be a credible article the facts need to be legitimate. Red Creek and Trout Creek never meet, pictures and fish are not from Red Creek, the is referring to Current Creek. The deer ran away to the mountains and starved?? Really… ? No mention of ranching and cattle industry fencing off and cutting off winter feed grounds and bottle necking vital migration routes? I agree there is a problem, so present the whole truthful story to work towards a remedy.

    • Mr. Kendal

      It sounds like you have not been to Red Creek or have never seen the CRCs that live there. I have held the CRCs from Red Creek in my hands. I have also been to the spots the photos where taken, and it wasn’t on Current Creek.

      • Patrick:

        “Mr. Kendall” has decided that he is a self acclaimed expert and, therefore, feels obligated to enlighten the rest of us poor slobs with his wisdom.

        His cut at the ranching industry is proof that he has no idea how ranchers contribute to wildlife habitat and welfare. Yes , there has been instances of disruption in some migratory routes. However, the WY Stockgrowers Assoc., in conjunction with the WY State & Federal agencies and individual ranchers ,have put untold man hours and $$ into wildlife welfare to mitigate any wildlife issues of disruption by mankind with no thought or expectation of recompense.

        As for the deer who “ran away to the mountains and starved” that is a crock conjured up in the mind of “Mr. Expert.” The deer population in WY is very healthy and well managed thanks to the efforts of LOTS of people from various industries and walks of life in WY.

        To try to talk reason to someone like “Mr. Kendall” is as effective as pissin’ into the wind. Don’t waste your time.

  4. I really do not know the best way to say this. I am a big fan of your blog and I check in a few times a week. I really appreciate the hard work you guys put in to share your experiences with us.

    That being said. I am a bit disappointed in the way this article is written. It seems to me like you are trying to cast a negative light on the Oil and Gas community. You mention what a negative effect they have had on the area and I must say I disagree.

    I have spent some time in the area. I have dealt with some of the industry in that area, and being that most of the leases are on BLM land I have seen what lengths they (the producers) have gone to, to preserve the land, animals and habitat. It isn’t the slash and burn approach that most environmental groups portray them to use. They have boat loads of regulations that they follow and have a certain precautions that they must take to keep the place the way it was. They are not allowed to drill certain areas during migrations. They have to have all open water covered with grates. They have to paint their tanks and facilities camo or another color that blends in with the natural habitat. All waste water is pumped down disposal wells. They monitor both temperature and duration of any flame and report it to the BLM.

    These companies are not made up of eco terrorists. They are local men and women out trying to provide for their family and to tell you the truth they are almost all avid sportsmen. They watch out for the land more than I think most would suspect.

    I do appreciate the work that the crew at TU do. They have done some really neat stuff and I have fished some projects that they have had a hand in. It is not un-appreciated!!!!

    I frequent the area south of Pinedale a few times a year and I can tell you, I can take pictures of world class mule deer, moose, antelope and elk all with gas wells in the background. They are getting along just fine.

    As a G&G fan I must tell you the Green and New fork and their tributaries make for wonderful fishing!


    • If we are on the same page here we talking about southern Sublette county, WY. What I witnessed on a trip through there a little over a year ago, and I repeat myself, I was appalled at the mess that has been created. Yes, some production companies are better than others, but a disruption in the ecosystem on the scale of what has taken place in southern Sublette County is going to have negative impacts no matter how many regulations / mandatory procedures are in place.

  5. This strikes home, pretty hard. I have just accepted a position working as a geologist for an oil company in West Texas. Not a lot of fishing there, I know, but I am avid angler and outdoorsman. I love the water. But it looks like I’m going to work for those bad guys. I’m not trying to poke fun, this really is a hard decision. I like driving my truck and boat around, but I love having the water to do drive to and on. I like having a nice new rod and fly line made from petroleum-heavy industries, but I want that water used to get that oil to stay in the lakes and streams. I like having a computer with energy from coal to read G&G and other things online, but I hate that acid mine drainage associated with coal mines.

    There’s no easy answer here. I hope someone can save something from oil-people like (soon to be) me.


  6. As a middle-of-the roader, I see both sides, from the aspect of we all use resources, but some places are more important than others. The buying out of the PXP leases on the Bridger-Teton NF was in part helped by the research that showed it was a critical point of wildlife use – and a number of oil/gas workers from the Jonah saw that and supported it. I do think the key is to push for a better effort to manage the level of development and recognize over time the need to carefully manage the impacts and resist the “drill everything” now scenario. Thanks for the heartfelt article and highlighting the people who are spending their precious time and resources to (hopefully) work out solutions.

  7. No doubt WY is different than the northern Appalachian states, but here in PA we did not see the deer (whitetail) population decrease due to drilling and development of the Marcellus shale. In fact, the opposite happened. It is reminiscent of the Alaskan pipeline and the Elk herd. The deer population, like the elk population in Alaska, increased due to the pipelines. Why? Well, the gas companies plant the pipeline right-of-way with acres and acres of clover that would make any food-plot hunter jealous. Before we decide to demonize the companies that provide us with cheap energy, let’s take a good long look at our gas bills. If I compare the price of natty gas from pre-drilling boom to the present, I figure I have saved 600 dollars every winter with the prices being the way they are now. That makes me happy. I don’t take money for granted.

  8. Nice work, Louis. And great comments, folks. I don’t think Louis was trying to paint the gas industry as villains, because they’re not. They’re just trying to keep people working and make money – there’s nothing wrong with that. Especially when, as pointed out, the industry has often tried to do the right stuff. But we cannot ignore the fact that some places are the right places to drill for gas and some others are not. The comparison with the Pinedale Anticline or even Jonah is not entirely inappropriate. The data says we sacrificed a huge number of mule deer for gas development on the Anticline. Will they be back in 30 or 40 years when production declines and we can (hopefully) put the winter range back together? Maybe – we don’t know. But even if they are, does that mean we should just develop gas wherever, regardless of the impacts. No, of course not – and many people who work in the industry would agree. The fact is that (geographical miscues aside) Louis is simply saying that some places are too special to drill right now, and Little Mountain is one of them. He’s dead on. Thanks, Louis.

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