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Wyo. biologist marks 35 years of counting fish

By Martin Kidston

The Billings Gazette

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 2 2011 2:30 p.m. MDT

Steve Yekel poses in Cody, Wyo., outside of Wyoming Game and Fish headquarters on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. Yekel is in his 35th year as a freshwater biologist for Wyoming Game and Fish, continuing a career capped by innovation, accolades and promotions.

The Billings Gazette, Martin Kidston, Associated Press

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CODY, Wyo. — For a biologist who aspired to work as an oceanographer, Steve Yekel is a long way from the sea.

And who should be thankful for this geographical mix-up? Wyoming's population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, for one, and anglers keen on river access.

Yekel is in his 35th year as a freshwater biologist for Wyoming Game and Fish, continuing a career capped by innovation, accolades and promotions.

His stories date to 1977, the year he moved to the region to conduct fish counts on the Shoshone River. Despite his years on the job, Yekel, when joking with his peers, shows no signs of slowing down.

"I like what I'm doing," he said. "We're doing some good things, we think, for the resource."

Yekel was promoted in 2002 to fisheries supervisor for the Cody district of Wyoming Game and Fish. The year before, he was recognized by the American Fisheries Society for his work on restoring Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Once headed for endangered species status, the imperiled trout is making a fragile comeback, thanks in part to the work being done by Yekel and his staff of biologists.

"We just completed Dead Indian Creek, restoring that drainage to Yellowstone cutthroat," said Yekel. "We've got another project over in the Bighorns to remove brook trout from the headwaters of South Paintrock Creek."

Yekel and his staff also are looking to create fish ladders, like those being built on the Greybull River, to help Yellowstone cutthroat and other species navigate the manmade obstacles in their way.

Diversion dams and irrigation canals make it difficult for fish to migrate from winter habitat to high-elevation streams, where they typically spawn.

"We're in the process of developing this large database that shows where these diversions are," Yekel said. "We're developing plans to keep the fish out of the canals and find ways for them to get over the dams."

Yekel earned his bachelor's degree in biology and his master's in zoology from the University of Wyoming. He wanted to become an oceanographer, but a chance to study invertebrates on the North Platte River helped changed his plans.

His experience on the Platte was needed on the Shoshone River, where accurate estimates on fish populations were lacking.

"I did population estimates between the diversion dams on as many fishes as we could count," said Yekel. "It was very difficult with the stuff we used back then to get much. Now, we can do a lot better job. We've refined those techniques tremendously."

Over the next 25 years, through fish counts and restoration efforts, Yekel's accomplishments added up.

He helped found the Game and Fish Biologists Association in 1998, serving as its first president. As president of the Great Plains Fisheries Worker Association, he established a scholarship for aspiring fish biologists at the University of Wyoming.

Now, as district supervisor, Yekel is working to improve Shoshone River access. Additional boat ramps and take-outs are high on his list of goals, along with building the partnerships with private landowners to make it happen.

"If we don't do it now, it's going to be very difficult to do in the future," Yekel said. "We're getting folks in who want their own little part of the world, and they're not very interested in access sharing. We need to step it up."

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