A small plane swoops down over a high alpine lake, suddenly releasing a huge cloud in its wake. The fine droplets fall slowly, like the mist so common in the Flathead, sparkling in the sunshine from above. Minutes later, every gill-breathing organism in the lake, from trout to insects to amphibians, begins to die. The location is Black Lake, one of the beautiful jewels of the aptly named Jewel Basin, on the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The poison is rotenone. The disaster is part of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Westslope Cutthroat Trout Restoration Project, otherwise known as a "poison and plant" program.
So opens the new video Dead Wrong, a production of Stop River Killing, an organization that is taking on the use of mass killings of aquatic species in waterbodies nationwide. I got the nine-minute video in the mail this week because I commented against Montana's "poison and plant" program in the past. You can watch and download it at www.stopriverkilling.org. Be forewarned, it's not for the faint of heart. Those with an affinity for aquatic species and the myriad birds and animals that rely on them may be absolutely appalled—to say nothing about all the other disturbing information available on the site.
In essence, what the story depicts is an almost insane cycle by fisheries biologists to play God by undoing what they've done in the past. Scientists once thought it was a great idea to dump huge quantities of hatchery-raised fish in high alpine lakes, rivers and streams just so anglers could catch them. Without a shred of biological integrity or purpose, this process has been going on in the U.S. for 125 years now. The planted fish are not chosen for their ability to enhance or fit into the naturally existing native ecosystems, but for their durability in hatcheries, fast growth rate, the ability to survive air drops and, primarily, for the ease with which anglers can catch them. In other words, the bigger and stupider the fish, the more likely the species would be chosen as candidates for widespread distribution.
In most other states in the U.S., it is common practice for fisheries managers to back trucks right up to rivers, streams and lakes and simply dump tens of thousands of hatchery-raised planters into the waterways. In many cases, and abandoning all pretense of naturally functioning ecosystems, the planters are big enough so anglers can legally catch them right out of the truck and keep them. In fact, it is not uncommon for hordes of desperate anglers to find the planting schedules and then follow the hatchery trucks, just waiting for the dump of planters that have been raised in concrete raceways and fed formulated fish pellets. They've never seen a river or lake before and are so dumb it can hardly be called "sport fishing" to haul the unsuspecting fools from the water.
To its credit, Montana realized the error of its ways many years ago and has mostly, but not entirely, quit planting our rivers with hatchery trout for good reasons. Wild fish—those that live and reproduce naturally in our rivers—tend to be healthier, genetically adapted for their particular waterways, and hold a far greater value for sport anglers. Only recently did another reason arise—the interbreeding of hatchery fish with dwindling populations of Montana's state fish, the native cutthroat trout. (For more on the program, see the Independent's June 17, 2010, cover story, "Trout saviors.") But that has proved to be a double-edged sword, and has turned into the driving force behind the state's dubious "poison and plant" program.
Were it not for the Endangered Species Act, it's likely no one would have paid much attention to the genetic interaction of introduced rainbow trout with Westslope and Yellowstone cutthroats. As it is, however, the destruction of the clean, cold waters that these fish require for existence has been enormous, primarily exacerbated by logging, mining, development and irrigation dewatering. Now, due to the loss of most of their native habitat, many think these fish deserve the protections from extinction offered by the Endangered Species Act. And therein lies the rub—and the motivation—for the massive poisoning of some of the state's most pristine waters, including those in wilderness areas.
Politicians fear the restrictions that an Endangered Species Act listing could put in place on activities ranging from resource extraction to irrigation to municipal discharges. So, in order to avoid the listing, the state's fisheries managers have embarked on an all-out effort to "restore" the species by poisoning entire lakes and rivers and re-planting them with cutthroat trout.
Some might believe that such radical manipulation of functioning ecosystems can be done under complete control and with no harm to the environment. But you'd have to ignore the increasing number of examples across the nation where such programs have proved disastrous.
The poster child for failure took place in Lake Davis, near Portola, Calif. Fisheries managers dumped 17,000 gallons of rotenone into the lake to eradicate pike. They disposed of 25 tons of dead fish, which was surely only part of the carnage, but only 6 percent of those were the target pike. Meanwhile, the rotenone, which has now been linked to Parkinson's Disease symptoms in rats and mice, poisoned the water supply for Portola, resulting in a $9.2 million settlement for the city.
Here in Montana, we have our own sad example of failure. Just weeks ago, fisheries managers offered no explanation for how the poisoning of Cherry Lake, in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, and Cherry Creek, which flows through Ted Turner's ranch and into the Madison River, had accidentally poisoned seven miles downstream. The goal, believe it or not, is to replace native Yellowstone cutthroat with westslope cutthroat.
Montana spends millions of dollars annually promoting tourism based on the state's natural amenities. Restoring habitat, not poisoning pristine waterways so they can be replanted with monocultures, should be our highest priority.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.