The West's fisheries spin out of control

  • Whirling fish

    Diane Sylvain
  • Disease-affected fish (bottom) and healthy fish (top)

    Gaylon Wampler/Denver Post
  • Biologist squeezes a male fish to fertilize trout eggs

    Colo. Division of Wildlife
  • Helicopter dumps fish in to a high-country lake in Colorado

    Colo. Division of Wildl
  • Trout, ready to breed, at Crystal River Hatchery in Colorado

    Colo. Division of Wild
  • Victim of whirling disease from Fremont River, Utah

    Utah Dept. of Natural Resources
  • Whirling disease fish

    Diane Sylvain

It's gotten to the point that even car dealers sell trout fishing. Their customers tool around the Rockies in four-wheel-drives named after a famous flyrod - the Jeep Cherokee special Orvis edition. Sticker price $33,000.

All the fishing shops, from Bozeman to Taos, offer the latest gear: microporous miracle waders whose fibers somehow breathe underwater, lines spun from bullet-proof Kevlar, graphite-fiber rods based on aerospace technology, lures with hooks that are laser-sharpened.

The many ranches that put their streams up for rent, the workforce that gets paid for everything from guiding angler dudes to crafting magazine articles about the nuances, are all busy cashing in on fish.

On the demand side, more than 2 million anglers chase fish around the Rockies.

Lately the scene includes news crews also wading around.

The cameras zoom in on trout in torment: close-ups of a once-beautiful, streamlined creature invaded by parasites, looking diseased and swimming in crazy tail-biting circles.

Tie a yellow ribbon around your flyrod, it's the Whirling Disease Crisis of 1995. Just don't be fooled into thinking it's a crisis of nature. The people most alarmed and pointing fingers - they and their ancestors are really to blame. The disease should be appreciated for the way it strips away pretense.

Improving on nature

It might seem that people fishing the Rockies are like bears in waders. They seem to have little or no impact. They seem at one with the ecosystem - especially those who catch and release; if they don't model an outdoor ethic, who does? Even the water itself, mostly flowing clear and cool and thrashing with trout, seems to verify that recreational fishing is on the soft path - a contrast to other uses of public land such as logging and mining.

The reality is, people fishing the Rockies have had a heavy impact, which only lately includes whirling disease. For a sense of it, or of any ecosystem, you have to look behind today, at the continuum - the change over time. A mere hundred years or so ago, hardly a tick-tock in evolution, anglers began to pressure an ecosystem that had only two species of trout: the cutthroat and the bull. And these native trout occupied far less territory than trout do today.

There is evidence that the entire North Platte River drainage, where the range slides into the plain in Colorado and Wyoming, had no trout. Throughout the region, many high mountain lakes - isolated by steep cascades and waterfalls - had no fish at all.

As early as 1862, when the owner of a Denver fish pond imported a load of sunfish all the way from Ohio by oxcart, the modern trend was established. An alliance of anglers, fish breeders, tourism businesses and state and federal agencies stocked the Rockies with fish from all over the world. The timing was linked to the transcontinental railroads, which opened the forests of the Rockies to big-time industrial logging, the valleys to that scale of agriculture, and the water to that scale of recreation.

Rumbling in from back East came aquarium cars filled with baby brook trout, brown trout and lake trout, or sometimes just the eggs packed on beds of cool moss. From California, the trains brought rainbow trout. Pioneer hatcheries processed the exotic trout and distributed them to streams, rivers and lakes.

Or people just came to the train stations with buckets in hand, gallon by gallon taking the trout out to stock their favorite water. Cans of baby-trout slurry were balanced on horses and mules, whole pack trains heading into the mountains, bound for the highest lakes.

"It was a Johnny Appleseed mentality," says Bob Behnke, a fisheries professor at Colorado State University. "They scattered fish around, thinking they'd end up with more (total) fish, but with no consideration (of the ecosystem). They thought they could do better than nature. It was a romantic thing, done without question for years and years."

William Abraham Bell, a physician and founder of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, bought 10,000 acres centering on a stream above Colorado Springs. He stocked the stream with hundreds of thousands of brook trout, built a resort hotel, and charged people for fishing vacations.

In another typical scenario, Green Lake, high above Georgetown, Colo., was barren, with no inflow or outflow, before banker William H. Cushman set his sights on it. Cushman had a stream diverted into the lake, guaranteeing a constant water supply, and stocked the lake with all sorts of exotic fish.

In 1879 he was charging 25 cents per hour for boat rentals, and 50 cents for each fish caught, running ads that exhorted, "Tourists should visit Green Lake, the Gem of the Mountains! Highest Place in the World to Get a Boat Ride, thousands of New Hampshire Trout! California Salmon! Rocky Mountain Trout! (actually, they were California rainbows) which will feed from your fingers."

As the hatcheries came to occupy many of the best natural springs, the exotic trout flourished. Like most invader species, they proved to be aggressive, taking over the habitat, displacing the amphibians and invertebrates in the high lakes and outcompeting the native cutthroats when given the chance (most of the natives were cutthroats; the bull trout were and are found mainly in pockets in the Northern Rockies).

Because they grew faster and were more tolerant of the crowded, semi-sterile conditions in the hatcheries, the exotics were judged a superior product. They were also judged to be superior prey, presenting more challenge to the hook.

The stocking campaign was thorough and as intense as a fever. In 1915, Colorado stocked 22 million trout, almost all exotics - a typical annual total for the state since then.

Graylings, salmon, carp, sunfish, walleye - the list of exotics put into the West's waters, year after year, seems endless. Today Colorado has 79 species of exotic fish, one-fourth of which came not merely from other regions in the United States, but from overseas (the brown trout, for instance, is native to Europe). Around the Rockies, the numbers are comparable.

Modern stocking is performed by fleets of tanker trucks, airplanes and helicopters dumping out designer trout slurry.

Most of the stocked trout disappear quickly - either reeled in or gone belly-up in a single season. They're a show passing through, attracting a crowd of anglers.

Mere remnant populations of the native cutthroats survive, typically isolated high in the headwaters. A century of momentum continues to play out, as the largest remnant population, in Yellowstone National Park, comes under attack by lake trout, which are native to the Great Lakes in the Midwest (HCN, 9/19/94).

Lake trout showed up in Yellowstone Lake for the first time last summer - stocked illegally by anglers. Already, in just a year, based on netting surveys, the lake trout there have increased tenfold. The Rockies' last big sanctuary for native trout, it's predicted, will soon be dominated by the exotic trout.

The horror movie

As for whirling disease, the most telling fact is that, like almost all the trout it preys upon, it is also thought to be an exotic, stocked into the region.

The parasite that is the disease, Myxobolus cerebralis, hails from Europe. It wasn't found in the United States until 1957, when a shipment of dead, frozen trout from Denmark was ground up and fed to a batch of living trout in a Pennsylvania hatchery. The frozen trout had the disease, and in short order so did the live trout. That was that.

The spread of the parasite has been relentless, because its microscopic spores are virtually indestructible. Cut off a piece of an infected trout, flush it down the sink through the garbage disposal, through the sewer-plant regime to an effluent pond where some of the spores float or blow to a hostile shore and dry out - and if after 30 freezing winters and blazing summers, a flood sweeps the old spores into a stream or lake, they'll be viable and ready to infect more trout.

The hatcheries and stocking campaigns moving so many trout around the U.S. have also moved the disease, but even without them, the spread would have occurred.

In the wild, the spores waft downstream. They ride around inside birds and mammals that have eaten infected fish, and re-emerge in droppings. They ride a trout from a stream into an angler's creel, over to a campsite on another stream, where they get distributed with the guts when the trout is cleaned; or it can be as simple as some spore-rich mud stuck to a pair of waders or clinging to a boat that's being towed at 60 miles an hour.

The spores put young trout into a horror movie. They burrow in and attack cartilage before it can harden into bone, especially around the brain and nerve-carrying spine, deforming the trout into little gargoyles that behave crazily: the eat-your-tail swimming that gave the disease its name. Even though older trout - say, four inches and longer - don't short-circuit or mutate, they carry the spores.

The second most-telling fact about the disease is that its whirling, tail-biting symptoms infect not merely trout but also the major players in the industry.

The initial response, as the disease spread westward, was draconian: In some places, all the fish in infected streams were poisoned and tons of their carcasses buried under six feet of dirt and lime; infected hatcheries were razed and buried and limed. "They couldn't stop it," says Behnke, the Colorado State University professor.

All the while, the ongoing campaign to stock every inch of available water with trout over and over spread the spores with utmost efficiency.

It took only a month from when the disease was first detected in the Rockies - November 1987 in a Colorado hatchery - to produce a grotesque above-water scene: A few days before Christmas, Colorado Division of Wildlife agents raided the home of another prominent Colorado State University fisheries professor.

Harold Hagen watched in shock as the agents with a warrant and holstered guns searched his Fort Collins home.

A professor for more than 30 years, Hagen had trained many of the division's biologists, including the chief of fisheries. But it was Hagen's side business - he operated hatcheries in Colorado and Montana - that the agents focused on. They confiscated Hagen's hatchery records and ultimately he had to fight criminal charges in both state and federal court. His fingerprints and mug shot were taken. He faced a $400,000 fine and four years in prison. What was he accused of? Spreading whirling disease.

"It was part of the hysteria," Hagen says now. "They wanted somebody to blame."

Wildlife detectives tried to track the Colorado spores. Hagen was suspected of importing diseased trout from an Idaho hatchery to his Montana and Colorado hatcheries. He and his trout were also suspected of spreading the disease around Colorado, as well as to some dude ranches and ponds in Wyoming, and to private fishing clubs in northern New Mexico. It took four years for Hagen to beat the rap: A judge dismissed the state case, saying there wasn't enough evidence, and the federal case was dropped.

By then, more hatcheries in Colorado, including at least eight operated by the state, were infected. After the initial discovery and a brief quarantine on the infected hatcheries, a century of momentum prevailed: The hatcheries needed a place to send their annual production of trout (the alternative was to kill and bury the hatchery trout, which might deposit spores in the soil). Anglers and the dependent businesses needed the trout in the field - over 80 percent of the fish caught in Colorado come fairly immediately from a hatchery.

So the state decided to stock the diseased trout into the wild, in drainages that were already infected. Which had some anglers just about burning their licenses, including Trout Unlimited's Colorado chapter, formerly a reliable ally of the state's trout managers. In effect, the state added to the number of whirling disease spores in circulation. Leo Gomolchak, vice president of Trout Unlimited's Southern Rockies region, says, "It's become a question of ethics."

But the stocking of diseased trout continued. Last year, by official state action, some 7 million trout from infected hatcheries were stocked into Colorado waters.

By mistake, since the spores can be missed when hatcheries are tested, the state also stocked diseased trout into hundreds of previously unexposed ponds and streams in the Flat Tops Wilderness, Grand Mesa and elsewhere in Colorado. At the moment, the state has declared another moratorium on stocking diseased fish.

Big money calls the shots

Arguably, recreational fishing has become more important in the Rockies than in any other region. About one in seven adult Americans fish freshwater; in Utah, one in six; in Colorado, one in five; in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, better than one in four. Crowding the locals, add 1 million adults who come in from other regions each year to fish the Rockies. Already leaders in the local rate of fishing, Montana and Wyoming are also the only states where, in terms of who's buying the licenses, the locals are outnumbered by outsiders.

The industry watches over its habitat, paying for projects that benefit fish. A lot of jobs and businesses have also been created by all these people having fun. Anglers in the Rockies spend $1 billion to $2 billion a year on everything from airfare to ersatz caddis flies to Trout Unlimited memberships.

The money flows beyond the private sector, into some agencies that are as responsive as their ancestors were - primarily the state fish and game departments, whose budgets depend on license sales and the excise tax (10 percent) on almost every piece of fishing gear sold.

The industry image concentrates on one product: trout. Easterners don't shell out $5,000 each for a week of Montana fishing to drop worms in front of carp.

So the high-intensity alarm is understandable. When whirling disease showed up in the Fremont River drainage in Utah, in 1991, the state poisoned the entire population of trout there.

Utah poisoned the cold-water portion of the drainage again in 1992, 1993 and 1994. A hatchery owned by the brother of Gov. Mike Leavitt was quarantined. Still, the disease has spread to other drainages in Utah.

It's expected that eventually the disease will occupy every drainage in the West.

Shrill headlines spin out of Colorado: "Disaster," says The Denver Post. On a prime stretch of the Upper Colorado River, the disease is linked to the disappearance of the last four years of young rainbows. The Upper Colorado is turning into an old-age home for trout.

Whirling disease in Montana also made the national news. On the prime stretch of Montana's Madison River - crowned by the Washington Post as "an almost holy place, a shrine to the delicate sport of fly-fishing' - the disease was detected only last summer and is already killing nine out of 10 trout.

On the Madison and the Colorado, the trout hit hardest are precisely the trout that the industry has put the most energy into - rainbows.

For decades, the rainbows have been redesigned for the angler experience, their genetic material harvested worldwide, their strains crossbred too many times to count, so that the latest batch of brood stock might be improved over the previous batch by, say, a pinch of Mount Shasta rainbow plus a dash of Tasmanian rainbow.

Generation after generation of rainbows were "bred to come to the feed in the hatchery," says Dick Vincent, a biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "Fish that were secretive," hiding, avoiding people - behavior suited for the wild - "died off in the hatcheries."

No turning back

As the rainbows were stocked into the neighborhoods of the native cutthroats, the species interbred on their own, producing offspring that tend to be poor survivors. "Rainbow trout are amazingly adaptable, and they amount to genetic pollution," says Colorado's state fish pathologist, Pete Walker. "You end up with (offspring that are) generic trout."

Sometimes the generic trout are sterile, or they reproduce for a few years only to die off suddenly when habitat conditions shift - a shift that pure cutthroats could have survived. Long term, the interbreeding "causes a lesser fish," says Vincent, "because the pure cutthroat was very well adapted for here."

"People have manufactured these fish Frankensteins that they have no control over," says Barrett McInerney, a Trout Unlimited attorney in California. "They still don't have any grasp of what the ultimate impact of all these hatcheries and the fish they plant will be on the environment."

It seems clear now that the redesigning of trout was aimed at maximizing hatchery output, or catchability, rather than survival in the "wild." Even that word, you can't trust anymore. The victims on the Madison are referred to as "wild" rainbows, which turns out to mean they're descendants of trout stocked into the river before the mid-1970s, when the state decided to let its rivers go their own way for a while.

By any definition, it's thought that the rainbows on the Madison got whirling disease the way many other trout have - by having it stocked into their habitat.

On the Madison, unidentified sneaky anglers get the blame, for stocking infected trout that originated in some out-of-state hatchery. (You can spot hatchery trout by their fins, worn down from rubbing on the concrete habitat.)

Despite the hard lessons about stocking fish willy-nilly, "There is still a body of people who think they know more about fish management than we do," says Thurston Dotson, hatchery bureau chief for the state. "Bucket biology is alive and well in Montana."

In Montana alone in the past 20 years there have been 200 incidents of illegal stocking, and the trend seems to be accelerating, says Vincent.

"More people are coming to Montana, packing the fish they like. The technology is better - it's easier to transport live fish. So we have exotic fish packed in on top of exotic fish," says Vincent. "Whirling disease is not the last alien invader we're going to have. There are other parasites and viruses and exotics just waiting to be packed here. I see disasters (coming), one after the other, because man is capable of packing stuff everywhere now.

"Truthfully, it would have been better to leave the cutthroats here, and not bring in the rainbows and browns, but that decision was made for us in the 1800s," says Vincent. "Once you bring in exotics, you're hung."

Yellowstone's native cutthroats, in the river near the lake, show that it's too late to turn back. So many people come to fish that stretch of river now, seeking the ambience of clear water and native trout, that during the brief six-week season, the average cutthroat gets caught and released 10 times.

Brown trout, over the millennia, have evolved into the wiliest trout through angler pressure. According to fisheries professor Behnke, rainbow trout are three times easier to catch than brown trout. Brook trout, easier still. The easiest take is the native cutthroat.

"Cutthroats are dumb fish," continues Behnke. "You just about have to have catch-and-release (fishing), or all the cutthroats would be wiped out in a very short time."

If the waters of the Rockies were suddenly stripped of all the exotic trout and if the pure native cutthroats magically retook their traditional range, the industrial recreation centered on fishing for trout would have to convert entirely to catch-and-release. Or would the whole thing simply collapse?

Blaming pollution and goldfish

Prolonged Western drought until this spring, dams and irrigation diversions and other tinkering with watersheds, increased fishing pressure, and a witches' brew of diseases all stress the modern trout. Whirling disease lurked in the Rockies a decade or so before the trout started to succumb - likely the trout have to be stressed from other directions before they fall to the disease in sweeping numbers.

"You're probably carrying cold germs in your system right now," says the targeted hatchery owner and professor, Hagen. "But do you have a cold? Probably not, unless you're under stress."

Hagen focuses on habitat. "It's easy to point the finger at the hatcheries. But let's pay attention to how our (trout) habitats have deteriorated," he says. "Aside from the Chamber of Commerce attitude, there is hardly a stream in Colorado that is the same as it was four decades ago.

"The situation in the wild is increasingly polluted and degraded. It's caused by a thousand things - more people, more houses along streams, more sewage, more organic matter, more chemicals and agricultural pesticides going into the water. They're using a lot more pesticides now in the attack on exotic weeds," Hagen says. "But when things deteriorate slowly, it's just like aging - you get used to looking at yourself in the mirror and you don't notice it."

Specifically, Hagen points to the tiny tubifex worm - the other primary carrier of whirling disease spores. Pollution favors the bottom-dwelling worms, and around the West, the worms are booming. The worms are also raw material for a cousin industry: Entire colonies are harvested, crumbled up and packaged as tropical fish food, transported across state lines and sprinkled into aquariums everywhere.

"Nobody is studying (the aquarium industry), nobody cares," Hagen says. "Many of the worms carry spores, and anybody who has an aquarium eventually dumps them down the drain."

Rockies as the new "Hot Zone"

Karl Johnson is now the gray eminence of the Whirling Disease Foundation Inc., a spinoff of the 75,000-member Trout Unlimited.

When he isn't fly-fishing, Johnson has a day job, doing epidemiology and virology on a world scale. He headed the team at the Centers for Disease Control that first isolated and named the Ebola virus, chronicled in Richard Preston's bestselling book, The Hot Zone. The foundation, which hopes for $20 million in endowments, gathered experts in a conference last May in Bozeman.

Johnson pronounced about the only certainty: "Here's a situation where man is the culprit again."

Johnson tackles the paradox: While deteriorating habitat might be a factor on other rivers, the Madison is about as pristine as a modern river can be. No abnormally low flows. No change in fishing pressures. No chemical problems. It should be a trout paradise, yet it has become a trout hell. It could be, Johnson says, the good conditions are to blame.

Before the disease hit, the Madison River was so rich with trout - more than 3,000 per mile in the stretch in question - that the trout themselves provided great habitat for the parasite.

Ten percent of the trout in the Madison are surviving the disease so far. It could be that something in their behavior or genes makes them resistant. The evidence is somewhat contradictory, but brown trout, which evolved and coexisted in Europe with the disease, show some resistance.

Maybe all that's going on is another round of survival of the fittest. In the meantime, anglers have to pass some years or decades chasing fewer trout.

Yet Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., wants to take a couple hundred thousand dollars of federal funding away from the effort to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park, and apply it to solving whirling disease.

Montana's other senator, Democrat Max Baucus, introduced the "Whirling Disease Response Act of 1995," declaring a national emergency. Baucus is frank about motives: "Fishing is big business. It is the engine that drives the economies of many communities throughout Montana."

There are places in the United States where trout and diseases have stabilized and coexist - though the cease-fire zones don't support the richness of trout that the Madison River in 1993 did. Maybe the Madison and other celebrity waters will never entirely recover to their heyday, even if there is a surge of resistant trout.

As usual, the reflex is toward management. The study of whirling disease has become a new spinoff industry. Biologists test different strains of trout, putting trout in little cages and exposing them in currents that carry the disease.

It must tweak some consciences that some studies show the most promising resistance is among the remnants of native trout, the cutthroats.

Biologists and others in the industry talk of a whole new stocking campaign, which would depend on chasing down the last of the natives, stripping their eggs and sperm, putting that raw material into the hatcheries to produce a disease-resistant designer trout.

The goal would be a trout that's about identical to what was here before we began to improve things.

Ray Ring, former senior editor of High Country News, recently moved to Bozeman, Montana.

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