By Cory Toye
Of all the unique qualities a person can possess, I admire a strong work ethic the most. This trait is not limited to building something or using your hands and mind to accomplish great feats. A strong work ethic and commitment can make someone a better father, mother, husband, employee, etc.
My heroes are people who value hard work more than leisure.
When I met Dave Sweet, I was a brand new TU hire in the fall of 2007. My first field experience was helping the East Yellowstone Chapter of TU during the ditch salvage efforts in canals around Cody, Wyoming (an annual effort to rescue stranded fish in canals after the irrigation season concludes). I remember it was a cold day with dark skies and the snow blowing sideways as I put my waders and winter gear on. In front of me, a dozen TU volunteers were already waist deep in a canal with buckets, nets and electroshocking backpacks. I was so impressed with the dedication of this group I felt a bit of pressure to perform well. I can admit now that I was nervous.
Dave was leading this pack of dedicated members with an electroshocking unit on his back and wand in his hand. As I introduced myself to him and the rest of the group, Dave was cordial but committed to the project on hand. I think his words were “nice to meet you, grab a bucket.”
“My kind of guy,” I thought.
At some point in the 1980s, Lake Trout (LT) were illegally introduced to the Yellowstone Lake system. LT are aggressive predators, and in the wrong ecosystem can have devastating impacts on native populations, in this case: the world’s largest population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout (YCT). In the subsequent decades, YCT numbers and recruitment were in a free fall towards a population collapse. Spawning YCT numbers in tributaries to the Lake illustrate the impacts to the fishery: Clear Creek, an important spawning tributary, had an estimated 43,600 fish per year move through the system in the 1970s and 1980s—in 2006, the number was 490. Population estimates for the entire Lake suggest YCT density has declined to less than 10 percent of what it used to be.
Currently, the National Park Service has hired commercial fishermen to capture LT to hopefully make a dent in the population and allow the YCT to recover. This is an extremely expensive venture but is buying the YCT population time for a more effective suppression effort to come online.
The YCT population is in trouble and a champion is needed to push the envelope and help find new ways to suppress LT…
Dave received his PhD from the University of Colorado in Analytical Chemistry and worked for a pharmaceutical company in Colorado and Arizona. He decided to buy the Absaroka Mountain Lodge in Wapiti, and made the remarkable decision to call Wyoming home. For decades, he and his family would take annual trips to Yellowstone Park to hit opening day for the fishery. He fished the Yellowstone Lake tributaries when there were “so many fish it would spook your horse,” as my good friend Tom Reed puts it.
Dave was operating the guest ranch near the East entrance of Yellowstone when the announcement was made that an angler turned in a LT - “July 30, 1994,” he recalls.
In 2007, after volunteering on a gill netting boat, Dave experienced the scope of the project and decided to dedicate a significant portion of his life to participating in the restoration of the YCT population. Since that time, Dave has traveled across the West to garner support and much-needed funding to find ways to suppress LT through suppression of recruitment occurring in LT spawning beds in the lake. Telemetry studies are ongoing to identify spawning areas in the lake and when the beds are most active. In tandem, research is developing ways to eradicate the eggs through the use of electricity. With any luck, entire age classes of LT will be wiped out each year and the population will dwindle to a point where YCT can rebound to previous numbers. And all the efforts are working. The “Lake Trout Suppression Scientific Review Panel” continues to find increases in cutthroat trout populations, especially in juvenile fish and tributary spawning numbers are on the rise. As of last December, Dave had raised over $360,000 for this effort.
Recently, Dave submitted an application to the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust (WWNRT) for $620,000 to fund research efforts for the next years. Because of the size of the grant request and the enabling statue of the WWNRT, legislative approval was required for the grant to be awarded. A small but vocal minority in Jackson opposed this project on the premise of “cause we like to fish for Lake Trout,” and launched an attack campaign on TU, the NPS and other partners involved in the project.
With an unbelievable resolve, Dave met the challenge head on and systematically began outworking the opposition. Soon, dozens of support letters from across the state and nation started flowing into legislators inboxes to support the LT suppression effort. Dave called legislators and met with as many as possible to urge them to support our efforts and help get this critical funding to the Lake.
But that was not enough. When the Wyoming Legislature convened in February, Dave hooked up his 5th wheel and with his lovely wife Cathy, made the 400-mile trek through wind and snow across big, wonderful Wyoming. Those of you familiar with western winter driving can appreciate how scary driving a 5th wheel down the interstate with a strong cross wind is. The camper looked like a battleship listing to port for most of the journey.
For two weeks, Dave and Cathy endured the camper and lobbying legislators at every chance. Dave testified in committee meetings and tirelessly fought every negative campaign launched from the opposition. Even when the water froze in the camper Dave would not slow down and for the better part of the stay in Cheyenne, Dave and Cathy had no running water.
On February 28, the final vote in the House was counted and the bill to approve the $620,000 grant was approved, bringing Dave’s fundraising success for the project to nearly $1 million.
You can’t give Dave a compliment, he won’t take it. However, he will read this post eventually, I hope.
For the last 7 years, it has been a pleasure to work with Dave on coldwater fishery issues in the state of Wyoming. He has spent his entire life investing his heart and soul into his work, family and friends. Upon retirement from his pharmaceutical job, he ran a guest ranch and now, when he deserves to take a break and relax, every waking minute is spent thinking and working for the restoration of YCT populations in Yellowstone Lake. Dave is also the treasurer for the Wyoming Council of TU and an active member of the local chapter. He rarely misses chapter projects and every fall, you will still see him in the canal with an electroshocking backpack trying to rescue otherwise doomed fish.
Dave will never slow down; he will always have mud on his boots and his eye on new opportunities to make a substantial difference for his friends, family and thankfully, the YCT.
That is why he is one of my heroes.
Cory Toye is director of TU’s Wyoming Water Project.