State of Our Trout
State of Our Trout
By Ted Williams
All across our nation, but especially in the West, unique species and subspecies of trout are in desperate trouble. Remnant populations hang on mostly in headwaters where natural barriers protect them from competition, predation and introgression from non-indigenous fish flung across the landscape by ecological illiterates, including state and federal managers.
Virtually all those managers are now dead; and virtually all their replacements get it, having acquired what Aldo Leopold called an “ecological conscience” and what George Bird Grinnell called a “refined taste in natural objects.” Typical of the new breed is U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Craig Springer, who writes this about a fish that until 2006 (when his agency down-listed it to threatened) was our only inland salmonid protected as endangered, though others should be: “Gila trout are swimming expressions of antiquity, artifacts of epochs past. In their genes they carry a time capsule. Coiled in the double-helix of their DNA lies the lexis of the environment from which they have sprung forth.”
And Christy McGuire, in charge of golden-trout recovery for the California Department of Fish and Game, tells me this: “We have this library of trout native genes. The diversity of nature is something to be treasured. These fish hold things in their genetics that allow them to adapt to changing climate conditions that they’ve experienced in the course of their evolution.”
Alas, most of the public—even most of the angling public—doesn’t get it. They’re stuck in the mid-20th Century when “a fish was a fish.” Typical of this breed are the editors of the self-described “muckraking leftist online newsletter” Counterpunch who, in a piece entitled “Trout and Ethnic Cleansing,” apply the ruminations of Nazi critic and alien-plant advocate Rudolf Borchardt to native-trout restoration. “So leave those alien brookies alone!” the piece concludes.
To a large element of the environmental community, reclamations have nothing to do with preserving beautiful and unique fauna; it’s all a plot to generate license revenue.
“The California Department of Fish and Game wants to remove all fish from [Silver King Creek in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness of the Toiyabe-Humboldt National Forest], so it can re-stock the area with pure Paiute cutthroat trout,” writes Laurel Ames of the California Watershed Alliance. “But this area”—the entire 11-mile natural range of the rarest trout in the world—“is not needed to save the Paiute cutthroat. In fact, CDFG wants to introduce the Paiute trout into this area primarily because it wants to create an area where anglers can catch them. We shouldn’t poison wilderness streams and lakes for fishermen who want to catch a certain kind of fish!”
Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATs)—which, since I last reported on the perennially aborted Paiute recovery project, has taken over for the Center for Biological Diversity and the Pacific Rivers Council as the lead angel of death for this threatened fish—brags as follows: “CATs stopped state and federal agencies from ‘executing’ a creek in a high Sierra wilderness last fall  so they could replant a fish popular with anglers.”
Empowered by and inciting these and other groups have been full-time anti-piscicide crusaders Ann McCampbell, who claims to be a medical doctor although she lacks a practice, and retired macroinvertebrate researcher Nancy Erman (See “Ann and Nancy’s War,” FR&R July/October 2005). In September 2007, McCampbell reported in The (Santa Fe) Sun News that the only reason the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Trout Unlimited volunteers are working so hard to save the Rio Grande cutthroat (New Mexico’s state fish) is to “satisfy a fishing fantasy of a small, but influential, group of fishermen.”
To this mantra, John Regan, the tireless Trout Unlimited activist and former California council chair who has fought for 20 years to save Paiute cutthroats and other vanishing salmonids, responds as follows: “They think we’re all a bunch of whackos who can’t wait to hike eight miles into the wilderness to catch eight-inch fish. This isn’t about fishing at all; it’s about preserving earth’s biodiversity.”
Facilitated by ecological illiteracy and chemophobia and waged by environmental groups for which fish don’t count as wildlife, Ann and Nancy’s war drags painfully on. But since I last reported on it there has been a lot more good news than bad. Three years later it’s clear that native-trout advocates are starting to prevail.
Victory on Lake Davis
A “Battle of Midway” has just concluded on 4,000-acre Lake Davis in north-central California. You may recall the public hysteria—much of it whipped up by McCampbell—when, in October 1997, the California Fish and Game Department attempted to eliminate alien pike with rotenone, a resin derived from the roots of South American and Malaysian plants and the most important and usually only tool fisheries managers have for saving native fish from aliens.
Extremely fertile, Lake Davis had been one of the state’s top trophy rainbow fisheries. Rainbows had been the main diet of the pike, but the project’s goal was not restoring the great fishing, though that would be a nice bonus. The goal was saving the threatened Central Valley steelhead and spring chinook and the endangered winter chinook of the Sacramento-San Joaquin basin into which Lake Davis drains. Eliminating pike wasn’t just something enlightened managers felt like doing; it was mandated by federal law—the Endangered Species Act.
In the 80 years that rotenone has been used in fisheries management, there has not been a single documented case of it harming a human. It has no effect on terrestrial wildlife. And while it does kill some aquatic invertebrates, they bounce back within weeks, frequently to higher levels because they no longer have to cope with predation by fish they didn’t evolve with.
Rotenone, applied at .5 to 4 parts per million, degrades completely in a few days. Still, because Lake Davis was a public water supply, fish and game attempted to allay unfounded fears by having wells dug for the public and explaining the facts about rotenone.
It might as well have been speaking Swahili. Protestors held all-night candlelight vigils, marched around with placards that said “Burn in Hell, Fish & Game!” They shrieked, cursed, wept, swam out into the lake and chained themselves to buoys.
For crowd control, the state had to bring in a SWAT team and 270 game wardens, biologists, technicians, highway patrolmen and sheriff’s deputies. A Portola restaurant erected a sign that read: “We don’t serve Fish and Game.” Criminal charges (immediately thrown out) were filed against fish and game by Plumas County.
When I wrote about the Lake Davis debacle in Audubon magazine, we were dressed down by Audubon members who claimed that rotenone had sent 62 residents to the hospital. They’d read this in High Country News so it had to be true.
The truth was that 62 hysterical residents took themselves to the hospital because they wrongly supposed they’d been sickened by rotenone. Infuriated by my report, the news editor of the Plumas Audubon Society informed my editors that he had personally witnessed “bald eagles, white pelicans, and other birds and mammals scavenging poisoned carcasses that lined the shores.”
But he hadn’t stuck around long enough to notice that none was sickened. That’s because rotenone-killed fish can safely be eaten by wild animals and, for that matter, humans, who have used it for centuries to collect fish as food. Not one of the outraged “environmentalists” we heard from expressed concern for the endangered and threatened races of chinook salmon and steelhead trout that cling to existence in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River system.
In May 1999, pike showed up again in Lake Davis, more likely than not the result of sabotage. Now fish and game bureaucrats were jumpy as dusted grouse. Instead of assigning federally mandated reclamation to trained professionals, the agency abdicated to local ignorati, establishing a “stakeholder steering committee” that was to devise a “multi-faceted,” non-chemical plan to rid the system of pike (impossible save in the imaginations of people bereft of even rudimentary knowledge of fish). Fish and game director Robert Hight trekked to Portola where, bowing and scraping, he promised an irate rabble that his department would never again use rotenone in Lake Davis.
The “multi-faceted plan” hatched by locals and approved by Fish and Game involved all the quackery that has failed every time it has ever been tried—explosives, electro fishing, trap netting, gill netting, beach seining, even commercial purse seining. And it disgusted the California-Nevada Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, which scolded the department for abandoning “its legal and professional responsibilities” with an unscientific non-solution that was “a violation of state law and biologically and ecologically irresponsible.”
Using everything but rotenone, Fish and Game killed about 70,000 pike, yet the population steadily expanded, spreading up tributaries.
“Your department had to have known this wouldn’t work,” I told California Fish and Game biologist Ed Pert last May.
“That’s exactly right,” he said. “We had scientists at U.C. Davis do some modeling and look at how many fish would have to be taken out. It was clear that it wasn’t going to work because you’re dealing with compensatory mechanisms where if you knock the population down, there’s less competition, and they produce more fry. I think we had to let all of that run its course so local community leaders could see that we’re trying all these things, and they’re not going to work.”
As twisted as that sounds, Pert is correct. Locals weren’t going to believe anything Fish and Game said. They had to make all the old mistakes themselves, even if it meant the extinction of unique races of trout and salmon. After four years of steady pike proliferation and several high-water events in which pike nearly spilled over the dam, the scales fell from the steering committee’s eyes. In 2003 it allowed that rotenone might be okay after all.
That was also the year that Fish and Game got a new director—Ryan Broddrick, a smart, tough, new-breed professional passionately committed to preserving and restoring vanishing fish. Immediately he implemented what may be the most intensive outreach program in state resource-management history. “We had learned how not to do things,” says Pert. “This time we did everything we could to engage the community, treat it with respect and be as open and transparent with the information we had as possible.”
Other factors were working in favor of Fish and Game and the imperiled salmonids. For one thing, Lake Davis was not being used as a drinking-water supply. For another, even among the grossly ill-informed, Ann McCampbell was gaining a well-earned reputation as a crackpot. There’s a limit to how many times you can scream “fire” in a torrential downpour and cause alarm.
Lately, McCampbell, who claims to be chemically sensitive, has been melodramatically slapping a respirator over her nose and mouth between sentences as she testifies on the evils of piscicides. And she lives in a 1983 Chevy when she perceives elevated chemical contamination in the air.
This time Fish and Game wisely left most rebutting of McCampbell and her flock to outside experts. For example, when Dan Wilson—the elementary-school teacher who founded “Save Lake Davis Committee”—attempted to link the earlier rotenone treatment to local cases of autism, Down syndrome and cancer, Dr. Hank Foley of The Plumas County Public Health Agency promptly informed the public that this was bunk.
Fish and Game’s outreach effort even worked on Bill Powers who, in 1997, as mayor of Portola, had chained himself to a buoy. “I think at least we can say it’s going to be a one-shot deal and pose no health effects to the public,” he told USA Today less than a month before the September 2007 treatment. That treatment, more thorough and with much better equipment than the first, went down without incident, killing at least 11,000 pounds of pike.
On May 16, 2008, Fish and Game hosted a Lake Davis victory celebration at the dam, releasing some of the nearly one million Eagle Lake–strain rainbows it will stock this year. Department biologist Julie Cunningham reports good karma: “White pelicans, western grebes and Canada geese and their goslings were out on the lake. And an osprey, clutching a fish and pursued by a bald eagle, came flying over the podium.”
Since I last interviewed Paiute cutthroat advocates for FR&R, they’ve been stuffed a fourth time by chemophobes. So in 2008 I was astonished to find them energized and upbeat. California Fish and Game’s Paiute project leader William Somer admitted to being “frustrated” but offered this: “I think the tide is slowly turning; the Lake Davis treatment created a lot of good press.”
I can well understand why Somer is frustrated. What I can’t understand is where his patience and commitment is coming from. The Paiute recovery plan came out
in 1985. What should have been a simple, straightforward stream reclamation that, for the first time in history, would have restored a fish to 100 percent of its native range, has been paralyzed by all manner of bureaucratic hurdles, most of them (including two lawsuits) engineered by Nancy Erman.
After 23 years of endless and duplicative environmental review, scoping sessions, public commentary, hearings, protests, administrative appeals, litigation, court orders and inertia and timidity on the part of the permitting agency, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Paiute’s entire native range is still occupied by alien fish.
“Dr. Robert Behnke”—generally acknowledged as the world’s leading authority on trout and salmon—“flew up and testified before the Water Quality Control Board,” reports TU’s John Regan. “He did a great job, and we got the go-ahead. But Erman”—this time using CATs, Wilderness Watch, Friends of Hope Valley,
McCampbell and Laurel Ames as litigants—“kept looking for a weak link. And in the fall of 2005 she got a preliminary injunction.”
Providing legal counsel to the litigants was the non-profit Western Environmental Law Center, which unsmilingly describes itself as a “public interest law firm that works to protect and restore Western wildlands.”
CATs et al had sued Fish and Game in state court and gotten blown out of the water. But they simultaneously filed in federal court before a judge who didn’t understand fish or the preliminary injunction process. A preliminary injunction is supposed to be for an emergency that comes out of the blue.
“But what Erman does,” says Regan, “is wait till the last minute because she knows we’ve got about a three-week window—the last two weeks in August and first week in September. Silver King Creek is high up, and after that it gets too cold for rotenone to work.”
In the most recent court action the Forest Service rolled over on its back and pointed its arms and legs at the sky (as opposed to its pit-bull defenses when challenged on resource extraction). It withdrew approval of the project, agreed to prepare a needless, redundant and grotesquely expensive environmental impact statement, and paid the litigants $91,346 in taxpayer money.
The preliminary injunction came down the night before treatment was to get underway. Somer had his reclamation team on site with drip stations in place and ready to go. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went up in smoke.
Western Environmental Law Center attorneys untruthfully argued that rotenone would “eliminate” nontarget species, some “rare or endangered.” Nontargets never get eliminated, and the only “rare or endangered” species in the watershed that could conceivably be affected by rotenone if it existed in the project area (and it doesn’t) is the mountain yellow-legged frog. All frogs are extremely resistant to rotenone, in fact unaffected in the adult stage; and all mountain yellow-legged frogs in the watershed are above an impassible waterfall, cohabiting with the last pure Paiute cutthroat.
This may not be a coincidence. The rainbow-Paiute hybrids in the 11 miles of Silver King Creek below the falls may have eliminated yellow-legged frogs. In any case, intensive rotenone applications in Silver King Creek and its tributaries above the falls from 1963 to 1993 didn’t harm the frogs.
These highly successful treatments—without which the Paiute almost surely would be extinct—were necessary because some bucket biologist had unleashed alien trout in this last refuge. Ironically, the only reason pure Paiutes were there and the only reason they survive today is that an earlier bucket biologist had thrown them over the falls into then-troutless waters.
This tiny, unnatural sanctuary is good enough, according to Erman, who is even less committed to the truth than to native ecosystems. When, prior to one of the aborted rotenone treatments, TU volunteers, Fish and Game and the Forest Service evacuated as many introgressed trout as they could electro-shock from the 11-mile project area of Silver King Creek, and moved them to an isolated lake, Erman reported in the newsletter of the California-Nevada Chapter of the American Fisheries Society that they dumped the hybrids into “a source for pure Lahontan cutthroat trout.”
This struck me as highly unlikely; and when I asked Erman for documentation she got edgy and evasive, and then provided a reference revealing that the allegedly compromised “Lahontan lake” was an entirely different waterbody that the evacuated hybrids can’t get near.
So disgusted by Erman’s latest sabotage are Somer’s superiors that they say they’ve washed their hands of Paiute recovery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken over the project and hired consultants for the environmental review. But now the service is paralyzed by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Board, which is too frightened to issue a permit.
When Regan, with fellow Paiute crusader Leo Cronin, made his first trip to Silver King Creek in 1990, the valley was overrun with cattle. Through their efforts, and the efforts of other genuine environmentalists, the watershed was designated a wilderness and the grazing allotment retired. Now CATs, Wilderness Watch, Friends of Hope Valley, Erman, McCampbell and Ames are accusing resource managers and volunteers of trying to “poison wilderness.” Declares Regan: “We’re trying to restore a vital piece of the wilderness.”
Regan and his colleagues in TU and California Trout—even more dedicated than the chemophobes—are working to reengage fish and game. Somer is in a three-point stance. They tell me the environmental impact statement won’t be finished in 2008, but expect the project to get underway in 2009.
Last issue I promised and delivered some good news about the recovery of the West’s imperiled trout, though in the case of Paiute cutthroat recovery—aborted for the fourth time by retired macroinvertebrate researcher Nancy Erman and her troupe of loud, aggressive, fish-stupid chemophobes—you had to look hard for it. Herewith, good news that— once you get past some discouraging elements—is more obvious.
Let’s begin with Apache trout, Arizona’s state fish. It’s neither cutthroat nor rainbow, but a unique, heat-adapted salmonid of the high desert that evolved in Arizona’s White Mountains. Listed as endangered in 1967 (via the earlier, weaker version of the Endangered Species Act), it was down-listed to threatened eight years later.
No native-trout recovery program has progressed more smoothly, and few have produced more spectacular results. For one thing, only brown trout occupy Apache habitat; so, while browns displace Apaches and must be chemically removed, introgression hasn’t been an issue. Arizona is also blessed with a dearth of chemophobes, a plethora of ecologically literate anglers and enlightened fish managers at the state level and in the White Mountain Apache Tribe, which set about restoring these fish in the 1940s while state and federal resource agencies were flinging alien trout around America like confetti.
The recovery goal was 30 populations; today, there are 27. “We’re hoping within the next two to three years to finish the last three,” says Julie Meka, native trout coordinator for Arizona Game and Fish Department. The department has opened two recovered streams to catch-and-release fishing, and will doubtless open more in the near future. It also stocks large Apaches in non-recovery areas so that bucket biologists won’t be able to contaminate recovered populations.
Blighted by mine waste, over-fishing, de-watering and, especially, introgression and competition from non-indigenous fish, the greenback cutthroat trout faded from the Arkansas and South Platte Rivers in Colorado’s Front Range mountains and its few native South Platte tributaries in southeastern Wyoming. In 1939 it was declared extinct.
Thirty years later a young Colorado State University scientist named Robert Behnke rediscovered greenbacks in a tiny headwater stream in the Roosevelt National Forest in north-central Colorado. When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, the fish became one of the first listings.
With the recovery plan underway in 1978, greenbacks were down-listed to threatened. It was purely a political move, but a smart one because it allowed catch-and-release fishing. With the angling community rallying around the project, there was intense political motivation. The alien brookies, rainbows and browns had never done well in greenback water. But, with the home-court advantage, the greenbacks became fat and robust, reaching lengths of 18 inches. Rocky Mountain National Park, a main sanctuary, became a destination fishery. In 1994, Colorado made the greenback its state fish.
Brookies, notoriously hard to eliminate, keep popping back up in greenback streams. For years the Park Service has been begging anglers to kill brook trout. In fact, you can legally keep 18 a day. Not that it matters much in overall greenback recovery, but so ingrained is the no-kill mindset that more than 90 percent of all brook trout caught by anglers in the park get released, according to 2007 creel-census data.
Environmental writers, including me, have long cited the greenback program as one of the most spectacular success stories of the Endangered Species Act. The recovery goal was 20 populations. Today, with at least 60 populations, greenbacks should have been de-listed from the Endangered Species Act. But in August 2007, much to the glee of the anti-piscicide axis, an ugly genetics issue arose.
A three-year study led by University of Colorado researchers “found,” reported The New York Times, “that out of nine fish populations believed to be descendants of original greenbacks, five were actually Colorado River cutthroat trout.” And this item from The Western Native Trout Campaign—a cooperative venture by the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Rivers Council (which together sabotaged Paiute cutthroat recovery in 2003, after the groups swallowed retired macro-invertebrate researcher Nancy Erman’s anti-piscicide snake oil hook, line, boat and motor), the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and a genuine hero of salmonid recovery, Trout Unlimited: “Tragically, biologists recently discovered that several of the greenback populations were genetically contaminated by as much as 33 percent with Yellowstone cutthroat trout.”
That is tragic news indeed. It is also incorrect news, at least according to Dr. Behnke, who probably knows more about trout and salmon than anyone alive. In any case, The New York Times and the Western Native Trout Campaign had no basis for reporting that the researchers “found” or “discovered” anything. Finding and discovering are not the same as “claiming.”
Behnke submits that if there’s something tragic about this and similar “erroneous conclusions” about greenback genetics, it’s that they “have caused the recovery program to flounder in confusion” and “led to the poisoning of pure greenback brood stocks” (not that there aren’t plenty left).
“Greenbacks,” Behnke writes, “retain a little DNA from the other side of the continental divide. But this is a completely natural event….[Dr. Andrew Martin, the University of Colorado professor who oversaw this latest study and co-authored the paper] seems to be completely unaware of all that has gone on before him. He’s been brainwashed by techniques, methods and state-of-the art statistical analyses. Any rational judgment based on a range and depth of knowledge is eliminated from his thinking. Doesn’t he realize that all of the samples used in his study came from small, fragmented populations subjected to confusion caused by the founder effect?”
By “founder effect” Behnke means the natural and dramatic physical differences that appear when, after you place fish with a wide variety of genetic markers into multiple habitats, random selection by predators and disease leaves just a few “founders” of each new population.
Could it be that, having given the world back these fish, Behnke has allowed his emotions to cloud his objectivity? I know him well enough to state that such behavior would be alien to his character. Still, I asked Bruce Rosenlund of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Colorado Fish and Wildlife Management Assistance Office for his thoughts on the issue. He said this: “The more information we collect on this, the fuzzier the picture gets….I guess I’m not convinced that the markers indicate much of anything; I tend to be more in Behnke’s camp.”
The Gila trout, down-listed to threatened in 2006 and native to the Gila and San Francisco river drainages in New Mexico and Arizona, is another heat-tolerant, high-desert salmonid. Most of its natural range is in New Mexico, where recovery has been nearly as spectacular as that of the Apache trout, whose range it slightly overlaps. But progress has been anything but smooth. Fires and overgrazing have decimated important populations. Competition by browns and introgression by rainbows—some of this facilitated by government-hating, mongrel-loving saboteurs—has continually frustrated fisheries managers.
Here—in the national epicenter of county supremacy where anything undertaken by the state or feds is regarded with suspicion and paranoia—regulatory bodies have been easily seduced by full-time anti-piscicide crusader Ann McCampbell and her minions. These include Grant County (which tried and failed to impede piscicide use by passing what it called the “Pollution Nuisance Ordinance Act”), the Water Quality Control Commission and even the New Mexico Game Commission. After the Game Commission stripped the state game and fish department of authority to use piscicides, I reported in July/October 2005 FR&R that Gila recovery had been “stopped dead in its tracks.” But our ink was scarcely dry when a major obstacle—the Game Commission chair— got disappeared by the governor for alleged improprieties. Shortly thereafter, Gila project leader, David Propst, wangled permission to use antimycin, a piscicide even more effective and shorter-lived than rotenone.
His department needs it to fix a major setback. Brown trout have reappeared in the Upper West Fork of the Gila River, thought to have been cleansed of aliens in 2006. The recovery team was set to go in again with antimycin when word came from Arizona that antimycin had lost its kick. The single supplier, Nick Romeo, had died; and his contractors had apparently let water contaminate the formulation.
So Propst had to ask the Water Quality Control Commission to amend its order so that he could use rotenone. He figured this wouldn’t be a problem because the commission had just okay-ed rotenone in Rio Grande cutthroat recovery. But, on the strength of McCampbell’s junk science, it concluded that rotenone might somehow be more dangerous in Gila-trout water than in Rio Grande cutt water and scheduled a new public hearing for May 28, 2008. Propst, who never seems to run out of energy and optimism, sounded dispirited when I talked to him on May 14.
But on May 29, he told me he was “feeling a whole lot better.” McCampbell had missed the filing deadline and could only testify by a letter containing her boilerplate rants. Propst had been out the door before noon with the blessing of the hearing officer. And in August the Water Quality Control Commission granted him permission to renovate the Upper West Fork with rotenone.
There’s still lots of work to be done, particularly in Arizona, but Gila trout are well on their way to recovery. In 1970 these fish barely survived in about 12 miles of stream in four drainages. At this writing, they’re secure in about 78 miles in 13 drainages; and when the Upper West Fork of the Gila is reclaimed probably this year, the sanctuary will have expanded to 95 miles in 15 drainages.Game and fish opened two Gila streams to angling in the summer of 2007. One is no-kill. The other, because its fish are slightly introgressed, has a two-fish daily limit. (Comparison will provide important data on what kind of fishing pressure Gila trout can withstand.) On July 1, 2008, the department allowed catch-and-release on the lower part of Mogollon Creek, a showcase for the project because it grows 14-inch fish. With no advertising, the department got 170 anglers to file for its 2007 Gila-trout stamp (free but required so that it can collect creel census data).
Rio Grande Cutthroat
The Rio Grande cutthroat trout (New Mexico’s state fish) has been extirpated from 90 percent of its historic range. It used to occupy the tributaries of the Rio Grande at elevations of 7,500 and higher. Now most populations have been pushed up to at least 8,250 feet. Of the 120 surviving significant natural populations, 112 exist as genetically isolated fragments.
Because 38 percent of Rio Grande cutthroat trout populations share habitat with non-native trout, aggressive piscicide treatments are desperately needed. But recovery stalled in 2005 when chemophobes got the Game Commission to revoke the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish’s authority to use rotenone and antimycin.
“The Rio Grande Cutthroat is not an endangered species but is a popular sport species among fishermen,” proclaimed the group Wilderness Watch. “It is both sad and ironic that it was Aldo Leopold who convinced the Forest Service to protect the Gila as our nation’s first wilderness in the 1930s. Now, it is in danger of being converted to a fish farm for recreationists.”
It was also Aldo Leopold who wrote: “If education really educates, there will, in time, be more and more citizens who understand that relics of the old West add meaning and value to the new.”
One might suppose that an outfit with a name like “Wilderness Watch” might know about the work of Leopold, the father of wilderness, or at least be vaguely familiar with the language of the Wilderness Act, which, because of Leopold, provides for precisely the kind of replacement of wilderness parts the Rio Grande cutthroat recovery team is implementing. But no.
In any case, the argument that “the Rio Grande cutthroat is not an endangered species” and therefore shouldn’t be recovered, brainless as it is, may soon not apply. On May 13, 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would develop a proposal to list the fish as either threatened or endangered. That’s a huge boost to the program. And now that game and fish has regained authority to use piscicides, recovery is forging ahead.
“In the summer of 2007 we did a lot of work on Comanche Creek in the Valle Vidal, getting rid of white suckers and non-native trout,” says Forest Service regional biologist Amy Unthank. “It went very well. There were very few protestors, and they weren’t allowed near the stream.”
The California golden trout (the state fish) is not listed on the ESA but probably is more imperiled than its close relative, the threatened Little Kern golden. Both forms evolved high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains after post-Pleistocene heat in the Central Valley cut off primitive Sacramento-San Joaquin redband rainbows.
California goldens survive only in the South Fork of the Kern River and Golden Trout Creek, within the 303,287-acre Golden Trout Wilderness of the Sequoia and Inyo National Forests. Most of the Golden Trout Creek populations are in decent shape, though a few have been lightly contaminated by rainbows inadvertently stocked by the California Department of Fish and Game. But, with rampant introgression and brown trout knocking at an upstream barrier, the South Fork of the Kern needs mega-doses of rotenone.
“We’re about to propose some treatments,” says Christy McGuire, in charge of golden-trout recovery for fish and game. “We’ll have to go through the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process, and that takes a couple years. The Paiute cutthroat trout effort has been a real learning experience for our department.”
Little Kern goldens, surviving in five populations above barriers and mostly in the Golden Trout Wilderness, have suffered little introgression, though McGuire and her colleagues have identified a few contaminated populations that they plan to clean out.
“Our big accomplishment in 2007 was comprehensive DNA testing on California goldens and Little Kern goldens throughout their range,” says McGuire. “So now we know what we’ve got and can start implementing restoration.”
Before the department’s stunning victory on Lake Davis (see “State of Trout: Part 1” November/December 2008), golden-trout recovery seemed like a long shot. Now I’d call it a good bet.
Once abundant in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alberta, westslope cutthroat trout are in desperate trouble. But Montana, which has designated the westslope its state fish, has undertaken what may be the most important and ambitious native-fish recovery effort ever attempted.
For the better part of a century, the lakes of Swan Mountains in the Flathead National Forest have been dribbling alien genes from rainbow-Yellowstone cutthroat hybrids into the last best westslope sanctuary—the mainstem and tributaries of the South Fork of the Flathead River, isolated from rainbow invasion by the Hungry Horse Dam.
Now, with mitigation funds from the Bonneville Power Administration (which operates the dam), Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has begun a 10-year program to eliminate the hybrids and replace them with pure westslopes. It can’t be called a “reclamation” because the lakes were originally fishless. But the Swan Mountains have become an important angling destination, and there’s no good reason to deprive the local economy of this huge source of revenue. There is, however, an excellent reason to establish pure westslopes where none existed—the genes they will contribute as they make their way into the South Fork system will help reverse the process of introgression by genetically swamping the mongrels.
Wilderness Watch has been working overtime to kill the project. Of all its outrageous claims, the most disingenuous is that the westslope broodstock (recently infused with new genetic material from pure South Fork fish) aren’t quite the same as the downstream natives and therefore might degrade their genes. But the downstream natives now face extinction from the hybrids Wilderness Watch wants left alone.
In June 2006, Wilderness Watch and Friends of the Wild Swan tried to stop the project by filing an administrative appeal with the Forest Service. Interestingly, Friends of the Wild Swan had successfully petitioned to list the bull trout as threatened. Why would it care about bull trout and not westslope cutthroats? The answer is that it cares about neither; it’s just that listed species are advantageous to its political agenda.
While that agenda—protecting the Swan Mountains from slap-dash development—is laudable, using one listed species while simultaneously engaging in activity likely to cause the listing of another is precisely the kind of behavior that provides ammo to critics of the Endangered Species Act who claim “environmental extremists” are misusing it.
If the administrative appeal wasn’t discouraging enough, many (maybe most) of the wilderness-fishing outfitters want the project stopped. Although the westslopes will grow faster and bigger because they’re better adapted to the habitat, it will take two or three years for the fish to reach catchable size. And, while there will be plenty of hybrids left in lakes yet to be treated, these outfitters don’t want even a small and temporary reduction in fishing opportunity.
It’s fine with them if America’s rich and diverse trout-gene library continues to degrade into one big pile of homogenous mush, provided their clients’ rods get bent. Barbara Burns, co-owner of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Ranch—one of the oldest and best-known operations in the project area—tells me this: “There are a lot of other lakes that they could poison. Why take big, healthy, fat fish and kill them? If they want to play God outside the wilderness, fine. Are any of us pure? We’re all mongrels.”
But, like I said, there’s lots of good news. And here’s the best I found anywhere: The U.S. Forest Service—the agency that cut and ran when challenged on Paiute recovery—denied the appeal of Wilderness Watch and Friends of the Wild Swan in language so forceful that it amounts to a stern rebuke. Rotenone treatments started in 2007 with what appears to be complete removal of hybrids from Black and Blackfoot lakes. Two down, 19 to go.
Onward with native-trout recovery, and upward with all those brave, dedicated, enlightened souls in government and the private sector who make it happen.
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--from the Nov. and Jan. 2008 issues of FR&R