Fish Fight- Some Environmentalists Don't Get It

by Ted Williams

This may sound harsh, but it's true: Environmentalists tend not to see, handle or understand fish; to distrust agencies dedicated to their recovery; and to set up mental spam-filters for facts about short-lived fish poisons.

Usually, these poisons are the only tools managers have for saving native trout from being eaten, out-competed or hybridized out of existence by alien species. During the 70 years that fish managers have used the fish poison rotenone (derived from derris root) there is not one documented case of human injury. Antimycin, an antibiotic developed in the mid-1970s, is equally safe. Both occasionally kill non-targets -- mostly aquatic insects -- which bounce back in weeks and, with alien fish predators removed, are far more prolific.

As the old saw goes, just one concerned environmentalist can "make a difference," and that's not always good. Ann McCampbell and Nancy Erman, the nation's two busiest protesters against fish poisons, find rapt audiences in outfits like Wilderness Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity, titillating them with bogeyman stories about rotenone and antimycin. Antimycin, usually applied at between 8 and 12 parts per billion, "is fatal in humans if swallowed (directly from the bottle)," McCampbell warns.

Given its name, one might suppose that the Center for Biological Diversity would defend all biological diversity. But citing co-plaintiff Erman's universally contradicted "findings" and professing concern for the yellow-legged frog (which doesn't occur in the proposed treatment area), the center sabotaged restoration of America's rarest trout, the Paiute cutthroat of California's Toiyabe-Humboldt National Forest.

Last year, the Forest Service settled the center's lawsuit by agreeing not to use rotenone until it had restudied everything that everyone who'd been paying attention already knew about it. The feds shouldn't be "poisoning streams in a wilderness area without looking at other options," proclaims the center. But there are no "other options."

One might also suppose that a group with the name, "Pacific Rivers Council" would leap to the defense of the Paiute cutthroat, or at least know something about it. Instead, it recycled old wives' tales about rotenone and issued an "action alert," asserting that "neither the Silver King Creek nor Tamarack Lake drainages historically supported the threatened Paiute cutthroat" when these were the only habitats that supported it.

Finally, one might suppose that a group called "Wilderness Watch" would fight to save the westslope cutthroat, Montana's state fish and as much an icon of American wilderness as the wolf or grizzly. Instead, it is trying to derail state efforts to stop alien trout from converting westslopes to mongrels.

"Poison has no place in wilderness stewardship," Wilderness Watch declares; but fish and plant poisons are essential to wilderness stewardship. While the group correctly observes that the targeted ponds were originally fishless (and could make a case that they should remain so), it claims that the westslopes, to be stocked as eggs, have somehow been diminished by being fertilized in captivity and therefore threaten the natives. Considering the group's crusade to preserve the gross genetic pollution now underway, it couldn't offer a more disingenuous argument.

In New Mexico's Gila National Forest, Wilderness Watch -- quoting misinformation from Ann McCampbell -- is impeding recovery of the endangered Gila trout. The University of Wyoming's Department of Zoology and Physiology reports that antimycin has "little to no effect on invertebrates." Yet Wilderness Watch proclaims that it will kill "all the native macroinvertebrates." Adult amphibians are unaffected by fish poisons, and larvae are evacuated and held till after treatment. Yet Wilderness Watch reports that antimycin will kill "all amphibians."

Wilderness Watch is also impeding restoration of New Mexico's state fish, the imperiled Rio Grande cutthroat. "It is not known whether antimycin is a carcinogen," it alleges. (It is known that it is not.) Wilderness Watch also claims to have divined the motives of the U.S. Forest Service, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in both Gila trout and Rio Grande cutthroat recovery: "The purpose is to remove stocked trout and replace them with the listed Gila trout, in an effort to boost the population to a level that will allow delisting and resumed sport fishing of the species." Rio Grande cutthroat recovery, explains Wilderness Watch, is just a ruse "to kill introduced nonnative trout and then restock the streams with native Rio Grande Cutthroat trout [which] is a popular sport species among fishermen."

Saying that native trout restoration is about fishing is like saying that peregrine restoration is about birding.

"It is both sad and ironic that it was Aldo Leopold who convinced the Forest Service to protect the Gila as our nation's first wilderness in the 1930s -- now, it is in danger of being converted to a fish farm for recreationists," laments Wilderness Watch.

I see a different irony: It was Aldo Leopold who wrote the following in his essay "Wilderness for Wildlife": "If education really educates, there will, in time, be more and more citizens who understand that relics of the old West add meaning and value to the new."

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Grafton, Mass., and is the conservation editor for Fly Rod & amp; Reel magazine.

Publication date: 06/03/04

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