Big Win for Our Rarest Trout

  • By: Ted Williams

The Paiute cutthroat has a future thanks to dedicated, tireless fisheries biologists.

ELDER RELATIVES, NOW DEPARTED, used to admonish me for reporting bad news about fish and wildlife. But whenever I asked them to fetch me good news they came up empty—there wasn’t and isn’t a lot. If they are looking down (or up) today, they’ll approve of the following story. It’s about heroic fisheries professionals of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the US Forest Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who prevailed in their 10-year struggle against stupidity and duplicity to save America’s rarest trout.

Moreover, this is the first time that humans will have restored a threatened or endangered fish to 100 percent of its traditional habitat—nine miles of Silver King Creek, which drains the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness of the Toiyabe-Humboldt National Forest, high in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. In fact, the Paiute cutthroat will have more habitat than nature originally provided, because pure Paiutes now exist above impassable falls in originally fishless upper Silver King Creek and because, for safety, managers have established four self-sustaining refuge populations in distant watersheds.

But it isn’t just the Paiute cutthroat that the interagency recovery team created a future for. It built case law, national precedent and public awareness that should assist recovery and protection of dozens of other imperiled fish, such as golden trout, Little Kern golden trout, Kern River rainbow, Apache trout, Gila trout, redband trout, westslope cutthroat, Lahontan cutthroat, Yellowstone cutthroat, Rio Grande cutthroat, Colorado River cutthroat, greenback cutthroat, bull trout, blueback trout and brook trout, and depleted races of steelhead, coho salmon and king salmon, to mention just a few.

The Paiute cutthroat, recently diverged from Lahontans, is unique among trout in that it lacks spots. J.O. Snyder, of Stanford University, discovered the fish in 1933. He was so impressed with its unique beauty that he named it Salmo seleniris (now Oncorhynchus clarki seleniris) because of the “resemblance of its evanescent tints to the lunar rainbow.”

The only possible way to save imperiled natives like the Paiute from being hybridized off the planet by non-indigenous cousins is to remove all alien genes. And, except in tiny rills where electro-shocking is occasionally feasible, the only tool managers have for doing this is rotenone—a short-lived and easily neutralized organic piscicide derived from roots of tropical plants. In modern fish recovery it has never been seen to permanently affect an aquatic ecosystem other than to restore it. And in nearly a century of use in fisheries management it has never been known by clinicians to harm a human.

But for a decade Paiute recovery was blocked by chemophobic, would-be defenders of biodiversity who hate rotenone because they haven’t bothered to learn about it, who successfully shopped for fish-stupid judges, and who were awarded outlandish attorney fees at the expense of US taxpayers. For them fish don’t count as wildlife. Their commitment to the natural world ends with warm, unslimy creatures they see and hear.

On May 13, 2013 the chemophobes met their Waterloo when a federal court vacated their most recent injunction. At this point they were left with no option because they’d made the agencies jump through every conceivable hoop and pump out all possible environmental review, none of it necessary. Mere fear and loathing of rotenone is not grounds for legal action.

So on August 27, 2013, state and federal fisheries managers started dripping rotenone into Silver King Creek, in the first phase of a project that promises to be the most spectacular success story in the 40-year history of the Endangered Species Act. The mongrels that had infested the creek had a lot of rainbow blood, some golden trout blood, and a little cutthroat blood (Lahontan or Paiute, or possibly both). In case a few have survived, the team plans another treatment in 2014. In all likelihood Silver King Creek will then be ready to be repopulated with pure Paiutes.

IN A SERIES OF WEIRD REVERSALS, the Paiute cutthroat was saved by a bucket biologist, extirpated from its entire native range by other bucket biologists, nearly wiped out by sloppy management, saved by good management, then threatened with eventual extinction by radical environmentalists.

In 1912 Joe Jaunsaras, a local shepherd, dumped pure Paiutes he’d caught in Silver King Creek into the fishless reach above impassable Llewellyn Falls. In those days “a trout was a trout,” so various people (there are no records) then stocked rainbows, goldens, Lahontan cutthroats and possibly other aliens below the falls. Soon Paiutes were literally up the creek, hybridized out of their natural habitat.

In 1949, when a California Department of Fish and Wildlife crew took the wrong trail and mistakenly stocked rainbow fry above Llewellyn Falls, extinction seemed inevitable. But between 1991 and 1993, at enormous expense and effort, managers eliminated mongrels above the falls with multiple rotenone treatments. The department then released pure Paiutes from two lower-creek tributary refuges sealed by falls (they’d been stocked with Paiutes back when pure fish existed in the upper river).

With the downlisting of the Paiute cutthroat from endangered to threatened in 1975 (the better to facilitate hands-on management) the Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service got involved. For 28 years state and federal managers picked their way through a formidable morass of red tape. Finally, in April 2003 the recovery plan, mandated by the Endangered Species Act, won approval. It was an exciting time for all who love the natural world. To be sure, there wasn’t a lot of native habitat. Still, Paiutes were going to be restored to all of it. It was to be a huge first in fisheries management.

THEN ONE PERSON MANAGED to torpedo recovery. Anti-rotenone zealot Nancy Erman prevailed on the ultra-litigious Center for Biological Diversity and the well-meaning but gullible Pacific Rivers Council to sue the Forest Service for alleged inadequate environmental review. Fearing legal precedent, the agency backed off and set about restudying long-studied data. (See “Ann and Nancy’s War,” FR&R, July 2005.)

As a measure of Erman’s credibility, consider her claim in Pisces—a publication of the California-Nevada Chapter of the American Fisheries Society—that the department had allowed and encouraged Trout Unlimited volunteers to genetically compromise pure Lahontan cutthroat habitat. Actually, so as not to waste a public resource, they’d transported electro-shocked mongrels from Silver King Creek to water that had been genetically compromised for decades. I told Erman that, as a TU activist and fundraiser, I found her false accusation damaging and offensive. She offered me neither excuse nor apology.

The following year, after months of mind-numbing scoping sessions, the Forest Service completed its redundant review.

Enter Ann McCampbell, another chemophobe perpetually estranged from the truth. McCampbell, often with Erman at her side, is a fixture at native-fish-recovery hearings throughout the West. “It’s wrong to sacrifice one species for another,” McCampbell keeps telling the media.

But no “species” has ever been “sacrificed” by rotenone. Individuals of non-target fish species—and, to a much lesser extent, invertebrates—are killed and local populations thereby briefly diminished.

In 2004 Erman and McCampbell, along with Laurel Ames—of the California Watershed Alliance—shut down Paiute recovery by frightening the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, a political, non-scientific entity, into withholding the permit.

“We shouldn’t poison wilderness streams and lakes for fishermen who want to catch a certain kind of fish,” testified Ames. I explained to her at the time that Paiute cutthroat recovery isn’t “for fishermen” any more than condor recovery is for bird watchers. I might as well have been quoting Shakespeare to my Brittany. When I next spoke with her, in September 2013, she offered this: “They threw the dead fish in the woods, which was really appalling. I guess the bears ate them; that’s probably not good for them.” The dead fish were buried; but had the team thrown them “in the woods,” it would have done a favor for bears and other scavengers. Fish killed this way are safe even for human consumption. South American aborigines have safely fished with rotenone for centuries.

ON AUGUST 31, 2005, AFTER THE agencies spent $260,000 sending 30 workers up into the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, hauling in equipment by pack horses, setting everything up on-site, and with the brief window for treatment about to close, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATS), Wilderness Watch, Ames and McCampbell shut down recovery with a last-minute injunction. They convinced US District Judge Frank Damrell, Jr. that rotenone application required still more environmental review.

“Poison has no place in wilderness stewardship,” declared Wilderness Watch. But rotenone and herbicides are essential to wilderness management; and the hands-on fish and wildlife management they enable is guaranteed by the Wilderness Act. Without these short-lived poisons we’d lose the native ecosystems that comprise the core value of wilderness.

The following summer CATS boasted that it and its co-litigants “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.” According to Erman, Paiute recovery is a secret plot by anglers “so they can fish.” McCampbell calls it “a fishing agenda.”

Such talk infuriates John Regan, the Trout Unlimited activist who has fought for 30 years to save the Paiute cutthroat. “They think we’re a bunch of whackos who can’t wait to hike eight miles into wilderness to catch eight-inch fish,” he observes. “This isn’t about fishing at all; it’s about preserving earth’s biodiversity.”

In 2011, CATS, Wilderness Watch, Friends of Silver King Creek, Ames and McCampbell obtained another bizarre injunction (ultimately lifted) from Judge Damrell, this one based on his claim that the Forest Service had provided improper “tools analysis” for a small motorized auger to mix the neutralizing agent potassium permanganate and was therefore in violation of the Wilderness Act.

Representing the litigants in court, and recycling their untruths, was the Western Environmental Law Center. “Rotenone,” it proclaimed in a press release, “does not just kill the fish in the water but the entire ecosystem, including turtles, snakes, frogs, birds, terrestrials, insects and other animals that live in or drink from the poisoned water.”

This is the single most ignorant statement about rotenone I have ever encountered; and believe me, that is going some distance. Rotenone used in modern fisheries management has never killed an ecosystem, and it has never been seen to kill a turtle, a snake, a bird, a terrestrial organism, or a frog. It can (usually doesn’t) kill tadpoles; but managers evacuate tadpoles before treatment or wait until they’ve metamorphosed.

“This watershed,” reported the Center for Biological Diversity “is historic [my emphasis] habitat for the mountain yellow-legged frog, a species in serious decline.” True enough, but years of exhaustive surveys, including one just two weeks before treatment, failed to turn up a single mountain yellow-legged frog in or near the treatment area. Other litigants argued that a frog might show up—also true. But if one did, it would have to be an adult and would therefore be unaffected.

The point is this: No rotenone treatment happens without minor and temporary collateral damage, but blocking treatment because it might kill a few non-target critters is like blocking chemotherapy for cancer patients because it might make them throw up.

Attached to the Western Environmental Law Center’s ridiculous press release was the name Pete Frost, one of the firm’s attorneys who had represented the litigants. So in September 2013 I read him the text and inquired if it was indeed his. “I didn’t write that,” he declared indignantly, “and I would not agree with it.” But then Frost uttered a ridiculous statement of his own: “The aquatic organisms in the water that breathe oxygen are those that are extirpated by rotenone.”

Only fish are extirpated by rotenone (briefly, until natives are reintroduced); that’s the whole idea. For example, immediately after rotenone was applied to Silver King Creek last August, US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Chad Mellison started flipping over rocks and photographing perfectly healthy caddis larvae. While there were no doubt fewer insects after treatment than before, it does not follow that most of the missing were killed. Aquatic invertebrates have evolved a mechanism for recolonization called “catastrophic drift.” When they sense something they don’t like—say, ash from wildfire, mud from landslides or, in this case, rotenone—they simply dislodge and float downstream.

Some insect mortality does occur, but it is irrelevant because insects elsewhere in the system transform to adults, fly back and lay eggs. Within a few months the population is restored, and frequently in better shape than before treatment because the bugs no longer have to cope with predators they didn’t evolve with.

All the litigants—along with other fringe groups like Beyond Pesticides, and even a few otherwise responsible outfits, such as Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club—cite non-peer-reviewed literature alleging a “link” between rotenone and Parkinson’s disease. There is none. The superstition derives from an experiment in which neurologists at Emory University, who knew they couldn’t induce Parkinson’s disease with rotenone and never intended or wanted to, injected concentrated rotenone into rats’ jugular veins via pumps implanted under their skin. At the end of a year and a half the rats exhibited Parkinson’s-like symptoms, not the disease.

As the state and federal Paiute recovery environmental impact statement noted: “The purpose of the Emory study was to intentionally develop an animal model that induces a Parkinson’s-like condition . . . . The route of administration for rotenone exposure in this and related studies was via intravenous injection, an exposure method that is not associated with environmental conditions. Many otherwise benign substances (e.g., air, salt, or sugar), if injected directly into the bloodstream, could have toxic effects.”

The entire treatment of Silver King Creek required only 12 gallons of formulation, which is only five percent rotenone (the rest being emulsifying agents). That translates to less than 50 parts per billion of rotenone in the water.

There were no non-target fish deaths because the entire Lahontan fish assemblage (mountain whitefish, mountain suckers, Tahoe suckers, speckled dace, Paiute sculpin, and Lahontan cutthroats) has been blocked from the treated part of the creek since the last glaciation by Silver King Canyon. Before the rotenone reached the canyon it was precipitated out of the flow with potassium permanganate.

I ASKED BILL SOMER, CALIFORNIA Fish and Wildlife's Paiute project leader, what his reaction was to the sight of rotenone finally dripping into Silver King Creek. “It was surreal,” he said. “I kept telling one of our pest advisers to pinch me. We started planning for this treatment in 1994.”

Reclamation by rotenone hasn’t always worked, but Somer and his colleagues have devised ways of significantly boosting chances for success. “First we did GIS [Geographic Information System] mapping, digitizing high-resolution satellite photos,” he told me. “That’s way more accurate than USGS maps. We studied flows at various locations. Then we put in a biologically neutral dye that fluoresces in the stream to measure travel time so we could set up our drip stations in the right places; we wanted overlaps to ensure toxicity. That worked out very well. We put live cages [full of electro-shocked mongrels] above every drip station to make sure we had good concentrations.” None survived treatment.

For 20 years fisheries crews recorded GPS waypoints, locating previously unrecorded springs, backwaters and small stringers that fry might have entered. And so that fish in bigger water couldn’t find such upstream refuges they were treated with backpack sprayers at precisely the same time drip stations were spitting rotenone into the main stem and tributaries. The operation could not have gone more smoothly. Even nature cooperated, providing unusually low water.

I asked California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Roger Bloom how, between May (when the most recent injunction was lifted) and August, the recovery team managed to get all the logistics squared away and all the equipment purchased, packed in and set up. His response: “We were going to have to pull this together very quickly, but luckily we’d been through it in 2004 and 2005. I don’t think we could have done what we did this last summer if we’d had to start from scratch. The water quality board cut the recommended rotenone application rate by more than half. They asked us to kick a 60-yard field goal and then tightened the goalposts to 10 feet. It’s hard to make people understand how difficult it is to move chemical through a dynamic watershed at concentrations so small and still kill fish. After we finished I went elk hunting; I had to decompress.”

The opportunity to save a species or subspecies from extinction is what professional fish conservators usually only dream about. So much did that opportunity mean to the recovery team that Bloom designed a logo for the project—two trout against a blue moon, evoking J.O. Snyder’s seleniris image and making the point that the chance to restore an imperiled creature to all its natural habitat comes once in a blue moon.

“This was precedent setting,” says Bloom. “I think it opens the door. In fact, we’ve just launched an effort on the Little Kern [where Little Kern golden trout are being swamped with rainbow genes] to evaluate barriers because we feel that may be our next big project. There were a lot of eyes on us. It has been the perception of the opponents that we were cowboys, that we just kill fish with no controls. We proved that we can do it effectively and safely within the stipulations of a really strict permit.”

Maybe the best summation of last summer’s rotenone treatment of Silver King Creek came from California’s fisheries chief Stafford Lehr in the following statement to the Paiute cutthroat recovery team: “You guys hit this one out of the park.”

Author’s note: In 2013 Trout Unlimited, with help from Patagonia, provided physical and financial assistance for Paiute cutthroat recovery. Funds for food, cooks and pack horses in 2014 are badly needed. You can be part of the continuing recovery effort by making a donation at or sending a check to Trout Unlimited, 10356 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee, CA 96161. To ensure that your donation gets correctly routed please write the word “Paiute” in the memo section of the check or the “special instructions to seller” box at the Paypal link.

Ted Williams is one of the nation’s most respected environmental writers, and has been writing Fly Rod & Reel’s Conservation column for more than 25 years.