The War on Rotenone
TED WILLIAMS, Chair, Native Fish Coalition
The most important tool for saving native fish from extirpation and extinction is rotenone, a short-lived, organic poison rendered from tropical plants of the pea family. In all but a very few cases it’s the only tool. Native fish are evacuated and the aliens that had been preying on them, outcompeting them or converting them to mongrels by introgression are eliminated. Then the natives are returned to their habitat.
Rotenone binds with organic material and sediments, so it degrades rapidly, especially in running water where it can lose toxicity in an hour or two. This poses a challenge to fisheries managers, but it also provides opportunity for instant neutralization by applying potassium permanganate downstream from a treatment area.
For centuries indigenous peoples have used rotenone to kill fish for consumption.
No poison is selective, but rotenone used in fisheries management is as close as it gets. All aquatic and terrestrial air-breathing organisms are unaffected. Nontarget mortality is limited to aquatic insects and gilled amphibians (though most amphibians tough it out, and treatments can be timed to allow tadpoles to transform to frogs and toads). Most insects survive, too, via a response called “catastrophic drift” whereby they sense change in water chemistry and dislodge from rocks, letting the current carry them to safety. Many insects survive without detaching. Caddis larvae, for example, have been seen happily feeding on rotenone-killed fish minutes after treatment. Finally, because adult insects fly, populations recover in a few weeks and frequently do better than before treatment because they don’t have to contend with predators they didn’t evolve with.
Only a tiny fraction of any piscicide formulation consists of rotenone; so it’s often applied at 50 parts per billion or less in running water and 100 parts per billion or less in standing water. In modern fisheries management rotenone has never been seen to harm a human or affect a native ecosystem other than to restore it.
Recent successes have been spectacular. The rarest trout in North America, the federally threatened Paiute cutthroat, was being hybridized off the planet by alien rainbow trout. But rotenone has saved it from certain extinction and restored it to California’s Silver King Creek in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness of the high Sierras. That constitutes 100 percent of its native habitat -- a first in salmonid management.
Rotenone has restored fluvial Arctic grayling and westslope cutthroat trout to Yellowstone National Park. It has restored greenback cutthroats, once believed extinct, to Rocky Mountain National Park. In New Mexico and Arizona rotenone has saved the threatened Gila trout from extinction. California’s state fish, the golden trout, would also have been lost without rotenone. For that rescue we can thank the father of native-fish restoration, Dr. Phil Pister. When he started work on the golden trout project in the 1970s alien brown trout outnumbered goldens by something like a hundred to one. Pister told me this: “I can safely say that had I been unable to use rotenone, the California golden trout would now be extinct.”
Landlocked Arctic Char Recovery
In Maine’s Big Reed Pond an illegal introduction of smelts all but wiped out landlocked Arctic char, a critically imperiled species eliminated from its entire U.S. range save 14 ponds in Maine. In 2010 the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife evacuated 14 Big Reed char (all it could trap) to the Mountain Springs Trout Farm, then killed all the smelts with rotenone. Progeny from the evacuated char were stocked during the next three springs. In June 2017 the department documented reproduction, identifying three new year classes.
Maine fisheries biologist Joe Overlock, offers this: “We couldn’t have done it without our partners -- The Nature Conservancy, which owns the property, Bradford Camps, Mountain Springs Trout Farm, Presque Isle High School [whose students volunteered at the trout farm], the University of Maine, and the Maine Army National Guard, which flew in product and equipment in two Blackhawk helicopters.”
I asked Overlock why there was virtually no opposition. “We focus on a public process that starts many years in advance, even before we settle on a decision to reclaim a water,” he replied. “That allows us to address any challenges associated with the reclamation and alleviates some fears and misconceptions.”
Overlock and his colleagues are to be saluted for excellent outreach. But other states do as much, and environmental groups and individuals, rife with fears and misconceptions, continually impede or block native-fish recovery. Maine could certainly use more environmentalists, especially among its sportsmen, but the environmentalists it has are mainly the right kind -- grounded, practical, valuing fish as wildlife and willing to learn about the realities of native-fish recovery.
Paiute Cutthroat Recovery
Out West there’s a very different breed of environmentalist. Consider the Western Environmental Law Center, the firm that provided pro-bono representation to a host of litigants who blocked Paiute-cutthroat recovery for a decade, very nearly ushering the fish into oblivion. Rotenone, the Law Center proclaimed in a press release, “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.”
The press release was attributed to the Law Center’s Peter Frost, who for years successfully argued against rotenone in court, shaking down attorney fees for the firm’s non-paying clients. When I contacted him he denied writing the release and acknowledged that it was patently false.
No retraction or apology was forthcoming, so I had the following public exchange with the Law Center’s executive director, Erik Schlenker-Goodrich:
E S-G: “Ted Williams is entitled to his opinion, but we stand by our work…. the effects of rotenone (a neurotoxin) to ecosystems are (despite Mr. Williams’ simplification) controversial.”
TW: “Erik, My statements about rotenone are not ‘opinion,’ as you would know if you’d read the scientific literature. The court enjoined the project because your attorneys shopped for a clueless judge. When the judge finally learned the facts about rotenone in imperiled-fish recovery he lifted the injunction. The reason rotenone use in fisheries management is ‘controversial’ is because of the wives’ tales gushing from groups such as yours.”
With that, I quoted the firm’s untruthful press release wrongly attributed to Frost and asked: “Erik, do you stand by that statement? If so, please tell us why we should believe anything you or your outfit says. If not, please tell us why you allow your staff to publish such gross misinformation. And please tell us when the retraction and apology will be published.” I received no answer, nor has there been a retraction or apology.
Before treatment Trout Unlimited volunteers helped the state and feds electro-shock as many mongrels as possible from Silver King Creek and move them to nearby mongrel-infested water -- the better to placate angry trout anglers who don’t care what bends their rods so long as it has an adipose fin.
Litigant Nancy Erman recycled (or perhaps was the source of) much of the Law Center’s fiction. In “Pisces” -- newsletter of the California-Nevada Chapter of the American Fisheries Society -- she wrote: “Many terrestrial mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians . . . are put at risk from these projects.” (No terrestrial organism is ever put at risk.) She then falsely accused TU and managers of polluting pure Lahontan cutthroat habitat with mongrels from Silver King Creek: “The California Department of Fish and Game, Trout Unlimited, and the U.S. Forest Service moved hybrid Paiute cutthroat/rainbows into other waters including Poison Lake. Poison Creek, the outlet of Poison Lake, had been a source for pure Lahontan cutthroat trout.”
When I asked Erman where she’d acquired her information she hemmed and hawed and said: “Well, we found a reference that they had been using that stream for pure Lahontans.” But her reference names the Lahontan population introduced about a century ago to “Poison Flat Creek,” a tributary of Poison Creek and isolated from it by a long series of impassable waterfalls. No apology or retraction has been forthcoming.
Gila Trout Recovery
The leading saboteur of native-fish recovery throughout the West is Wilderness Watch. One might suppose that a group so named would advocate such icons of wilderness as Paiute cutthroat, Rio Grande cutthroat, westslope cutthroat, golden trout, Little Kern golden trout and threated Gila trout (a desert-adapted salmonid whose core native range is the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico). But Wilderness Watch strives to block their recovery, frequently with success.
In the perception of Wilderness Watch mere sport is the only possible motivation for native-fish recovery. So the group proclaims: “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.”
Ann McCampbell, of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Task Force of New Mexico (a group consisting basically of herself), proves the old saw that one concerned citizen can make a difference. She proves also that this isn’t always a good thing. “Management that sacrifices other species and natural processes for the sake of one species is a betrayal of the public trust,” writes McCampbell. Rotenone does not “sacrifice species.” It sacrifices a very few non-target individuals whose populations bounce quickly back.
For years McCampbell, who impresses local bureaucrats by claiming to be a medical doctor (she doesn’t practice), single-handedly blocked Gila trout recovery. Having assimilated her testimony, Peter Pino -- the New Mexico Game and Fish commissioner who cast a deciding vote against recovery early in the battle -- declared: “What if we came up with a poison that killed all the white people and left all the native people here? Would we like that? I think that's what we're talking about.”
Eventually reason prevailed and major Gila trout recovery got underway, though local anglers kept setting it back by illegally introducing alien brown and rainbow trout.
Then in 2012 the Whitewater-Baldy Fire devegetated 300,000 acres, extinguishing six Gila trout populations; and in 2013 the 138,000-acre Silver Fire wiped out two more. Only nine populations survived.
But there was an upside. The fires also killed most of the alien trout in three streams. Trout anglers who had opposed rotenone because they didn’t want even temporary loss of fishing opportunity are suddenly less vociferous. Now they understand that it’s either Gilas or nothing. “We have a lot more support, even from counties which in the past had not been supportive of Gila-trout restoration projects,” says Gila trout biologist Jill Wick of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
In Willow and Mineral Creeks the fires took out all the aliens, so the department has been able to reintroduce Gilas without rotenone. In Whitewater Creek a few rainbows and brook trout are hanging on, the rainbows being a bigger threat because they hybridize with Gilas. Wick and her colleagues will shortly remove them with limited rotenone application.
Recent support doesn’t mean there’s a lack of opposition. That opposition issues from ecologically challenged anglers as well as chemophobes. Sportsman, outdoor writer and Gila Conservation Coalition chair Dutch Salmon publicly opines that mongrels with a high percentage of Gila genes are good enough; and he has urged the department to remove alien trout by “electrofishing, rather than by the use of rotenone,” a financial and practical impossibility.
Parroting Wilderness Watch, Gila Conservation Coalition executive director Allyson Siwik proclaims that “the use of poison is not in keeping with the ethics of wilderness protection.” But poisons, including rotenone and herbicides, are essential to wilderness protection; and the Wilderness Act provides for their use.
WildEarth Guardians, which has made a cottage industry of suing the feds for not listing as endangered or threatened everything that walked Noah’s plank regardless of available data, was quoted in the March 29th, 2016 Sante Fe New Mexican as calling Gila trout recovery “overmanagement in an area … we have specifically decided should be wild.”
That piece, entitled “Worries Linger Over Pesticide to be Used in Gila Trout Reintroduction,” recycled every wives’ tale ever spun about rotenone. It even added two of its own, citing a study that it wrongly claimed found rotenone to “enable the development of Parkinson’s disease” and professing that rotenone is an agent of human “suicide.”
While the assertion that rotenone “enables” Parkinson’s disease is new, every group that opposes rotenone in fisheries management has claimed there’s at least a “link” between rotenone and Parkinson’s. There is none. That superstition derives from an old Emory University study in which rotenone at hundreds of thousands times the concentration used in fisheries management was mainlined into rats’ jugular veins via pumps implanted under their skin. At the end of a year and a half no rat had Parkinson’s disease. The researchers merely wanted to establish a “Parkinson’s-like condition” -- i.e. tremors -- in an animal model.
Since then there have been studies of farm workers who, with no protective gear, had for years applied rotenone powder, again at hundreds of thousands of times the concentration used in fisheries management. Some of these studies have indicated a slightly higher incidence of Parkinson’s and some have not. In any case, warning against rotenone use in fisheries management on the suspicion that agricultural use of rotenone (now banned) might increase the risk of Parkinson’s is like warning against dental X-rays because first-responders at Chernobyl suffered radiation sickness.
I asked Wick if the department had contacted the Sante Fe New Mexican. No she replied, because John Pittenger, an aquatic ecologist with over 25 years of professional experience in native-fish conservation in the Southwest, had said it all in a letter to the editor.
Indeed he had. “The cited study,” he wrote, “has several serious flaws, most notably that there is absolutely no information on how much of any pesticide (the study included 31 of them, including rotenone) the study subjects were exposed to or for how long. This is like saying that sprinkling bleach (concentrated chlorine) on your breakfast cereal every day is the same as drinking tap water (treated with low concentrations of chlorine that dissipate by the time you drink it)… Other flaws of the study include multiple-comparison errors associated with analyzing the combined effects of 31 different pesticides, a small sample size, no identification of other pesticides or substances that might have been used that may cause mitochondrial dysfunction, and no consideration of genetic risk factors for Parkinson’s disease among the study subjects…. The story’s allusion to a single case of rotenone used to commit suicide is alarmist and irresponsible. The cited suicide case involved a 47-year-old woman who deliberately ingested about 7 ounces of an 800 parts-per-million rotenone solution. Any number of household products could have been used to achieve the same unfortunate result.”
Shortly before he died my friend Dr. Robert Behnke, recognized as the world’s leading authority on salmonids, wrote me as follows when I asked him to weigh in on the make-believe “link” between rotenone and Parkinson’s disease: “I also read that coffee drinkers reduce risk of Parkinson’s by 30 percent and smokers reduce risk by 60 percent. To be fair, anyone worried about rotenone and Parkinson’s, which I believe to be about zero risk when rotenone is used to kill fish in water, should be told that smoking two packs of cigarettes a day would overwhelmingly reduce Parkinson’s risk compared to even long-term, cumulative exposure of rotenone use as insecticide. Would you make such a recommendation?”
I wish Wilderness Watch and its chemophobic allies would read the sources they wrongly cite such as: Rachel Carson, who recognized the need for and advocated short-lived, non-biocidal pesticides; the Wilderness Act, which provides for hands-on maintenance of wilderness with all available tools; and Aldo Leopold’s essays such as Wilderness for Wildlife in which he wrote: “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.”
I know from years of experience that none of the information I’ve provided here has the slightest effect on the shrill, tireless opponents of rotenone. Native-fish advocates might as well address them in Chinese. Fish lack fur and feathers; they’re slimy and cold and, for most people, unseen. Therefore, for much of the public and all anti-rotenone crusaders, they don’t count as wildlife.
While the chemophobes can’t be reasoned with, they can be outshouted and outvoted. If you value native fish as wildlife, speak up in support of the bullied, underfunded managers who strive to keep them on this tired, old planet.