Debate rages over fish poisoning

Supporters say pesticide is the best tool for recovering native species


CHAMA VALLEY, N.M. - Dan Howe and Robert Mundy stop by Canones Creek just before sunset. It's a wintry day in mid-March. Snow drapes the stream banks. Both men wear blue jeans and cowboy hats, but there the similarity ends. Mundy is a rancher who raises sheep for a living. Howe is a geologist who keeps a llama for a pet. The duo has come together over a common concern for this creek and the people, themselves included, who live along it.

The story dates back to the fall of 1997, when the Jicarilla Apache Nation put the pesticide Fintrol into a stream on Running Elk Ranch, a luxury hunting and fishing resort not far from here. Although Fintrol is a poison, the tribe's goal couldn't have been more pure: The Jicarillas wanted to clear the stream of non-native fish in order to reintroduce the native Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a rare golden fish with spots, a dark belly and a wild, Oleg Casini red slash on its throat.

But Mundy says that the tribe's good intentions had unexpected consequences. On his ranch a few miles downstream of the spot where the Jicarillas introduced Fintrol, he says, a couple of pregnant ewes must have drunk some of the poisoned water. The following spring, "two lambs were born dead with kidneys that weighed four pounds. It was totally grotesque."

Mundy's story is anecdotal - there was never any documented link between the lambs and the fish poison - but the tale reflects growing fears among New Mexicans and other Westerners over the practice of poisoning waterways to help rare and endangered fish.

A documented failure occurred about the same time, when California officials poisoned non-native northern pike in Lake Davis with a substance called rotenone and another fish-killing chemical (HCN, 5/25/98). Downstream, the city of Portola lost much of its clean water, 62 people were hospitalized and the economy - much of it based on recreational fishing - dried up overnight.

This spring, fish poisoning is again a hot issue in New Mexico, where Howe, Mundy and other opponents have convinced the Jicarillas not to poison that same stream again. Now, they've asked the state to deny plans to poison waterways on ranches owned by media mogul Ted Turner.

"A wonderful substance"

The tale of the Rio Grande cutthroat mirrors that of many of the West's native fish. For decades, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has stocked streams for sport fishers. But non-native fish such as brook and rainbow trout have been bad for the natives, says wildlife biologist Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund in Bozeman, Mont.

"Brook trout out-compete cutthroat trout in the Southwest," he says. And while the brookies beat the cutthroat to the food, genetically dominant rainbow trout mate with the cutthroats, "effectively breeding cutthroat trout out of existence."

Phillips, who oversees endangered species on Ted Turner's vast ranches in Montana, New Mexico and Colorado, says it is important to save the Rio Grande cutthroats because they are the southernmost species of cutthroat. "They probably harbor some unique characteristics that suit them well to the relatively warm waters of New Mexico," he says.

Phillips, in collaboration with federal and state wildlife agencies, is trying to use Fintrol to reverse the mistake of overstocking. Invented in the 1970s and manufactured by Aquabiotics Corp. of Bainbridge Island, Wash., Fintrol gets its most powerful punch from antimycin A, a chemical which paralyzes the cells fish use to breathe. So toxic that it is administered in dosages measured in parts per billion, Fintrol slowly suffocates fish, insects and other creatures. Four to five hours after the poison is used, officials add potassium permanganate to the water to neutralize the poison. The dead fish are caught in nets downstream and removed while a fish barrier stops the exotics downstream from swimming into the "clean" zone again.

Phillips has asked the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission to allow him to use Fintrol this summer at Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch, which crosses into Colorado in the northeastern corner of New Mexico, and his Ladder Ranch in southern New Mexico.

"Fintrol's a wonderful substance for this," says Phillips. "It's been used for many, many years throughout the West as a safe and effective means for eradicating undesirable fishes from a watercourse."

A tough trade-off

Dan Howe is not so sure. He started studying antimycin A because he believes his aging pet llama, Paprika, is pregnant and he doesn't want her to drink any Fintrol-tainted water. Using Web sites such as TOXNET, he's found dozens of laboratory studies on the poison.

One of the most disturbing aspects of antimycin A, he says, is its antibiotic qualities. Dumping antibiotics into creeks could have similar effects to the widespread overuse of antibiotics in hospitals, he says. "Any time you apply antibiotics multiple times to a group of organisms, the survivors tend to show increasing resistance to that antibiotic." His worst fears paint a horror-movie scenario with "superstrains of brook trout and rainbow trout that are resistant to the antibiotic."

Mundy and Howe say they'd like to support native species, but not at such a risk. Mundy, a former state pesticide inspector, says too many questions remain about the poison's effects, not only on people and livestock, but on the whole stream ecosystem. They've taken their concerns to the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission, which will decide this spring whether to allow poisoning on Turner's ranches.

As the sky fades over Canones Creek, both men grow quiet, listening to the rippling water. "It's a violation," Mundy finally says. "It's violent, it's horrific and it's incredibly sad."

Miles away, Mike Phillips looks out his office window in Bozeman and offers the view from the other side of the fence.

"We're losing species at a rate that is unparalleled in the history of this earth and one of the big drivers is the presence of non-native species," he says. "Everything that we have is due to the wondrous diversity of life on earth. It's only prudent that we take care of it."

The author is an independent radio producer and freelance writer in La Madera, N.M.


  • Dan Howe, 505/756-9162;
  • Robert Mundy, 505/756-2177,;
  • Mike Phillips, executive director, the Turner Endangered Species Fund, 406/556-8500;
  • Maria Boyles, New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission, 505/827-2855.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Deborah Begal