When poisoning is the solution

A victory for an endangered fish, though some environmentalists fought hard to prevent it.


One of the more spectacular success stories of the Endangered Species Act is playing out in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness of the Toiyabe-Humboldt National Forest, high in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Heroic and persevering managers of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service have prevailed in their 10-year legal battle to save America’s rarest trout -- the federally threatened Paiute cutthroat. Its entire natural habitat consists of nine miles of Silver King Creek.

Cutthroat trout subspecies of the Interior West are being hybridized off the planet by rainbow trout from the Pacific Northwest, dumped into their habitat during the age of ecological illiteracy, which ended circa 1970.

In most cases, the only hope for the natives is rotenone, a short-lived, easily neutralized, organic poison rendered from tropical plants.

But a war on rotenone has been declared by chemophobic environmentalists, who refuse to learn about it, and by anglers who don’t care what’s on the other end of the rod so long as it’s bent. Although rotenone is essential to management as defined by the Wilderness Act, the group Wilderness Watch, for example, asserts that “poison has no place in wilderness.” And Peter Moyer, founder of the Orwellian-named Wild Trout Conservation Coalition, offers this mindless defense of cutthroat trout extinction: “I am a bit of a mongrel myself.”

State and federal fisheries managers are mandated by the Endangered Species Act to save the natives by poisoning the aliens. For years, however, this work has been impeded by individuals, publications and organizations that concoct and recycle horror stories about rotenone. Apparently, they haven’t figured out that fish are wildlife, too.

The worst offenders have been Outdoor Life magazine, Range magazine,Real Fishing magazine, Friends of the Wild Swan, Beyond Pesticides, Defenders of Wildlife, two Sierra Club chapters, Wild Trout Conservation Coalition, Wilderness Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Rivers Council, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Friends of Silver King Creek, and the Western Environmental Law Center.

The last six of these organizations managed to derail Paiute cutthroat recovery for a full decade. They accomplished this with endless appeals and lawsuits, all based on fiction. Typical of the absurd statements about rotenone was this proclamation by the pro bono counsel for the litigants, the Western Environmental Law Center: “Unfortunately, the chemical 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.”

Rotenone used in fish recovery has never affected an ecosystem except to restore it. And it has never killed a turtle, snake, frog, bird or any terrestrial organism. Aquatic insects usually survive treatment, and the few that don’t are swiftly replaced by natural recruitment. In fact, insects frequently do better after treatment because they don’t have to contend with fish they didn’t evolve with.

Appellants and litigants claimed a “link” between rotenone and Parkinson’s disease, basing this untruth on an Emory University study in which concentrated rotenone was mainlined into rats’ jugular veins via implanted pumps. (Rotenone used in fisheries management is applied at less than 50 parts per billion.) At the end of a year and a half no rat had Parkinson’s disease. The researchers knew they couldn’t cause Parkinson’s and never intended to. They wanted to establish a “Parkinson’s-like condition” -- i.e. tremors -- in an animal model.

Appellants and litigants also claimed that rotenone threatened the rare mountain yellow-legged frog. But it was extirpated in the watershed sometime in the 20th century, probably by the very alien rainbow trout that had been extirpating Paiute cutthroats. Rotenone doesn’t affect adult frogs but can kill tadpoles, though it usually doesn’t. If frogs are present, managers delay treatment until tadpoles transform. Ironically, rotenone is being used elsewhere in the Sierras to recover yellow-legged frogs by killing the alien trout that are eating them.

With each successful appeal and lawsuit, rotenone opponents boasted that they had “saved” Silver King Creek. But last August they ran out of legal options, and the managers applied about two quarts of rotenone to the entire treatment area. In case a few hybrids survived, two more quarts will be applied next August. Then, pure Paiutes will be reintroduced.

This will be the first time humans have restored a threatened or endangered fish to 100 percent of its historic range. Maybe it’s a turning point in the war.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes for Fly Rod & Reel magazine. 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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