Though fisheries biologist Lee McDonald spent his career focused on fish, he said one of the best parts of his job was meeting with Wyoming residents.
McDonald recently retired after a 41-year career with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, having worked in a variety of positions around the state. Most recently, he spent the past 11 years as a fisheries biologist in Laramie.
“One of the favorite parts of my job was interacting with the public, whether school programs or just visiting with anglers on the riverbank,” McDonald said. “That was an important part of our job and also one of the more enjoyable parts.”
McDonald grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, and graduated from Colorado State University. After spending his childhood hunting and fishing, he decided he also wanted a career in natural resources.
“It was better than driving a truck or going to work at the steel mill,” he said.
His career began with a temporary job with Game and Fish in Casper, while he was still a sophomore in college. He remembers arriving in Casper during an oil boom with a borrowed trailer because there was nowhere to stay.
That first seasonal position led to a series of seasonal positions with the department, pushing back the completion of his fisheries biology degree. In 1972, McDonald landed a permanent position as a fish culturist at the Clarks Fork Hatchery north of Cody.
Sitting on the banks of the Clarks Fork River, the hatchery raises fish for stocking in public waters around the state.
“I had gotten into fisheries because I didn’t think I wanted to drive a truck forever, but at least three days a week I was driving a large distribution truck,” McDonald joked.
During the coming years, McDonald moved to Story Hatchery as the assistant superintendent, back to Clarks Fork as the superintendent, and then to Como Bluff Hatchery north of Laramie as the superintendent. When that facility closed in 2006, he became a regional fisheries biologist.
McDonald said he brought his hatchery experience to the biologist work.
“We use a lot of hatchery-reared (fish) within this region,” he said. “We have some amazing wild fisheries too, but many of our standing waters are based on cultured fish, and we utilize them quite well.”
Fish hatcheries are popular places, and McDonald said the stations he worked at could see 500 visitors in a weekend.
“You’d better like interaction with the public or you’re going to be miserable,” he said.
Here in Laramie, he regularly fielded phone calls, emails or even letters from anglers with comments or questions. He had questions for them as well, as the public is a good source of knowledge about what’s going on around the region.
“I was also getting information from them,” he said. “It was beneficial.”
One group McDonald worked with frequently was the Izaak Walton League, a national conservation organization with a local chapter. Club member Ray Jacquot said they worked with McDonald on a variety of projects, such as stocking fish at beaver ponds near Pole Mountain and repairing fence near Crow Creek.
The club recently gave McDonald its Honor Roll Award, which recognizes non-members for conservation accomplishments.
“He’s been really great to work with,” Jacquot said.
McDonald was also very involved with the Wyoming Hunting and Fishing Heritage Expo, which ran from 1998-2013. The expo attracted thousands of people to the Casper Events Center and fostered cooperation between a variety of groups.
“I saw it as an opportunity to really do some different things than what I’d been doing with the public,” he said.
One of the most popular attractions at the expo, he said, was a truck with a fish tank on in it, which people could climb onto for a closer look.
“That’s something you can touch and feel,” he said.
The expo is scheduled to return in May, and McDonald said he’s considering continuing his involvement even during retirement.
McDonald said the fisheries in southeast Wyoming are in good condition these days, which he attributed to the addition of a lot of water during the last several years thanks to improved habitat conditions since the end of the drought.
“We were able to take advantage of that opportunity to grow the resource and take advantage of the water,” he said. “We’re pretty proud of that.”
Fishing in Wyoming is a valuable resource, and southeast Wyoming has its share of world-class locations that make Laramie a great place to live or visit. McDonald said he was proud to be part of a team that managed it.
“There were many days I couldn’t believe they were actually paying me to do this,” he said. “I had the opportunity to work with a pretty amazing resource.”