SEATTLE – Every summer, Sandy McKean and volunteers lug plastic jugs full of baby trout into the rugged wilderness of North Cascades National Park and plant them in alpine lakes for anglers to catch.
This year, reversing a practice that’s been around longer than the park itself, park officials say they’ll no longer allow fish stocking in those mountain lakes – and will kill remaining fish – unless Congress tells them otherwise.
It’s the latest twist in a long, often contentious debate over what it means to be “natural” when it comes to wilderness.
Park officials say stocking fish in lakes that never had them in the first place runs counter to the park’s mission to maintain and preserve ecosystems in their natural state.
“We feel fish stocking is inappropriate without legislative authority,” said Roy Zipp, the park’s environmental protection specialist. “It was envisioned as wilderness from its inception.”
Anglers like McKean and the volunteer group Trail Blazers say there’s a historical case for it and the park doesn’t need congressional approval.
North Cascades, a vast wilderness area about the size of Rhode Island with jagged high peaks and more than 300 glaciers, is the only U.S. national park where stocking non-native fish still occurs for recreation purposes, Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins said.
Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks no longer do it, Zipp said.
Park officials have tried for decades – without much success – to phase it out and bring the North Cascades in line with national park policy.
After a long review, including a 12-year scientific study, the National Park Service decided in January to end fish stocking if it doesn’t get congressional approval by July 1. It would remove fish from some lakes, using gill nets or a pesticide used in other parks.
If Congress allows it, the park will continue to stock up to 42 mountain lakes with species of rainbow, cutthroat and other trout that can’t reproduce, because they are sterile or because they need the moving water of a river or stream to reproduce. The lakes are all in designated wilderness areas within the park complex.
It’s unclear whether congressional approval could come this summer.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said he plans to reintroduce a bill giving the park that authority. Hastings’ 2008 bill, which five Washington representatives co-sponsored, passed the House last summer but didn’t get a Senate hearing.
Congress didn’t directly mention fish stocking when it created the North Cascades National Park complex in 1968, leaving plenty open to interpretation.
McKean said the park’s director promised during a congressional hearing at the time that fish stocking would continue.
“There’s a historic interest in providing angler recreation in high mountain areas. It’s as valid a recreational activity as hiking,” said Bob Everitt, regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which relies on volunteers like McKean to stock alpine lakes.
The state has had a fish stocking program in the North Cascades for more than 40 years, and stocking took place even in the late 1800s, Everitt said.
“The fact that it’s been going on for a long time is not a reason for it to continue,” said David Fluharty, a board member with the North Cascades Conservation Council. “We’d like to see restoration of those lakes through fish removal. … We’re talking about lakes that never had fish.”
The park estimates about 1,000 people fish these alpine lakes each year, but McKean believes those numbers are low.
While national parks had fish stocking programs in the past, North Cascades was created at a time when people’s perception of parks was shifting toward conservation, Jenkins said. “This tension still exists today between preserving ecosystems and the public’s desire for recreational activities in those places,” he said.