Hippos spark management debate

Nation’s most fearsome invasive species wreaks havoc on Western waterways.

 

On a warm Tuesday in March, Larry Sanders shades his eyes with a leathery hand and surveys the irrigation ditch that slices through his 500-acre farm in Colorado’s North Fork Valley. The ditch is running high and muddy with snowmelt; clumps of hay and the occasional red plastic cup spin lazily on its surface. I move to step onto the exposed clay bank, but Sanders plants his palm against my chest.

“Don’t move,” he hisses. “I’ve got him.”

He unslings the .308 bolt-action Remington and raises the scope to his eye. I strain to see what he’s aiming at, but I can’t discern anything in the murky water. The gun abruptly explodes beside me, Larry stumbling with the recoil, and the ditch erupts with spray and flesh – I catch a quick glimpse of a hulking, reddish-brown monster the size of a pickup truck, its vast red maw gaping and the twin scimitars of its curved lower tusks, each as long as my arm, flashing in the morning sun. The creature roars like a freight train, an unearthly bellow that resonates in the deep pit of my gut, and then it’s gone, vanished again into the opaque depths of the ditch. A cluster of bubbles breaks the surface and Sanders fires off a blind shot into the water, scans for telltale blood, but none rises.

“Missed the son of a bitch,” grumbles the farmer. “Again.”

I step away and lean over in the tall grass, my hands pressed against my wobbly knees. The echoes of the beast’s roar still reverberate in the valley. I glance fearfully at the ditch – already settled and placid, betraying no hint of the improbable creature that lurks within it.

Meet the West’s newest, most terrifying invasive species: Hippopotamus amphibious, the hippo.

***

No one’s quite sure when the hippos began turning up in Western waterways, nor how they arrived on this continent. Some believe the animals to be escapees, perhaps from a Zanesville-like private collection of exotic fauna. Others claim the animals were deliberately introduced as a prospective food source. (Although that plan may sound farfetched, it was nearly implemented by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900’s.) Conspiracy theorists suspect that the 8,000-pound aliens were turned loose by conservationists who feared the loss of African mammals to poachers, and wanted to ensure that hippos would survive somewhere in the wild.

“With most invasions there’s an obvious origin – zebra mussels on hulls or in ballast water, or the shipment of flax seeds that contained tumbleweed,” says Mary Rabineaux, ecologist and invasive species expert at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “The fact that there’s no clear mechanism in this case makes the hippopotamus’ spread all the more remarkable.”

Indeed, the hippo takeover has been swift and thorough. The Yellowstone, Snake, and Columbia Rivers now support breeding populations, and, after a juvenile was sighted in the Gila River last month, scientists believe it’s only a matter of time before the creatures arrive in the main stem of the Colorado. Although hippos are exclusively freshwater dwellers in Africa, an individual captured in Utah’s Salt Lake was found to have incipient salt excretion glands below its eyes, suggesting that the invaders may be capable of rapidly evolving to their environs.

Yet it is within irrigation and drainage ditches — whose stagnant waters resemble conditions in slow, muddy African rivers — where hippos have truly flourished. That’s meant trouble for farmers like Sanders, who says he first spotted hippos in his ditch in May 2013 and has spent the last year trying, without success, to eradicate the immense pests. “Damn critters eat all my hay, tear up the creek banks, and keep me up all night with their ungodly noise,” Sanders complains. “And they shit everywhere.

Sanders’ problems pale in comparison to the damage suffered by Mark Ellis, a rancher in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley whose property was overtaken last summer. Bull hippos are famously aggressive, and Ellis has lost several of his valuable Black Angus cows to the territorial male that has established residence in his pond. “The poor cows must’ve went down to drink,” says Ellis. “I found the carcasses along the shore the next day. It was just… pure carnage.”

Ellis adds that because his state’s livestock compensation program only covers losses inflicted by wolves and grizzlies, he hasn’t been reimbursed for his cattle. Nationwide, hippo damages to crops, livestock and property have been estimated at $500 million.

Although the hippos haven’t yet killed any humans, wildlife experts believe it’s only a matter of time before a fatality occurs. In Africa, the behemoths are notorious for attacking boats, often seemingly unprovoked, and are responsible for nearly 3,000 deaths per year – far more than any other mammal. Although they’re generally more docile on land, they can reach speeds of up to 18 mph on foot, and have been known to pursue humans they perceive as threats.

“We’ve been incredibly fortunate not to have a fatal attack on a human yet,” says Leslie Derschowitz, a wildlife conflict specialist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, who adds that avoiding rivers after dark and staying away from mothers with calves are the surest ways to avoid attacks. “Sometimes, though, you’ll get a bull just feeling grouchy that day, and there’s not much you can do besides get out of the way.”

The destruction of property and the threat to human life have the government scrambling for a solution. A pilot sterilization program in the Missouri River was stymied when tranquilizer darts proved incapable of penetrating the hippos’ thick hides, and the use of poisons has been prohibited for fear of impacts to other aquatic life. For now, scientists are still gathering information about the creatures’ habits: a team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists recently fitted a so-called “Judas hippo” with a radio collar in hopes that it will lead them to larger population centers.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Development Director who will have the overall responsibilities of leading our fundraising programs and reports directly to our...
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...