Trout Infestation

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The feds and the State of California have wiped out self-sustaining trout in dozens of high-Sierra ponds with gillnets and electro-fishing gear; and they plan to wipe them out in hundreds more, some with rotenone. Should you care? Absolutely.

Should you be outraged? Absolutely not.

On June 30, 2014 the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the two species of mountain yellow-legged frogs (Rana sierrae and Rana muscosa) as endangered. Eleven years earlier it had proclaimed that such action was “warranted but precluded,” meaning the agency was too busy. Both species have been reduced by something like 95 percent in part by a fungal disease, but mostly by non-native trout. Unless these alien fish are removed from certain high-Sierra ponds, extinction of both frog species is pretty much assured.

But the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife are getting kicked from hell to breakfast by people who believe that the purpose of the biota is to drip milk and honey into their mouths. Bruised conservation biologists need support from enlightened anglers who advocate recovery of all native ecosystems, including those degraded by alien fish they like to catch—in other words, anglers who aren’t hypocrites.

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In 2008, when a court-ordered settlement stopped trout stocking in 175 ponds and streams in mountain yellow-legged frog habitat, the public threw a hissy fit. (See “Got Trout,” April 2009). Reflecting the general mindset were letters to the editor in California newspapers such as this in the Santa Cruz Sentinel: “If these ‘environmentalists’ really wanted to help the poor animals, they would commit suicide to leave more room.” The San Francisco Chronicle even condemned the decision with a piece by its outdoor editor entitled “Trout Plants Halted: It’s a Load of Bullfrogs.”

Today the firestorm created by that slight reduction in the cascade of hatchery trout seems like a cozy campfire. From current hysteria about plans to poison and gillnet reproducing trout you’d think the entire Sierra was slated for a nuclear waste dump off limits to humanity.

This is a story not about frogs, not even about trout, but about attitudes. To understand these attitudes you need to understand the interaction between native frogs and alien trout. So first, some brief biology:

Before the middle of the 19th Century, virtually all Sierra ponds and streams above 7,000 feet were fishless, and waterfalls left by the last glaciation sealed them from upstream migration. So a unique ecosystem evolved, of which the hardy, cold-tolerant frogs were the major part. They sustained a unique array of predators, and they fed on a unique array of aquatic invertebrates (which themselves fed on a unique array of aquatic zooplankton and phytoplankton).

Then mountaineers and prospectors began packing in trout fry in milk cans and canvas bags. The aliens chowed down on native zooplankton, tadpoles, young frogs, water fleas, copepods, stoneflies, mayflies, dragonflies and caddisflies. They grew fast, delighting anglers.

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But in a few years the trout had eliminated most of the invertebrates and frogs, so in many ponds the aliens morphed into grotesque burbot look-a-likes with huge heads and eel-like bodies. Left with little food, most frogs that survived trout predation starved.

Shortly after World War II, when the California Department of Fish and Wildlife began using airplanes to saturation-bomb all high-Sierra ponds with hatchery trout, the entire ecosystem unraveled. The mountain garter snake, which depended on the frogs, is now on the way out. The trout-induced lack of insects has severely impacted the Pacific tree frog, Yosemite toad, gray-crowned rosy finch, Brewer’s blackbird and Clark’s nutcracker. To borrow the words of the great naturalist, John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it hitched to the rest of the universe.”

In the early 1990s Dr. Roland Knapp, of the University of California’s Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory, did the first trout removal projects in the Inyo National Forest east of Yosemite; mountain yellow-legged frog populations increased at least tenfold in three or four years. Subsequent projects produced equally spectacular results. And the frogs quickly spread to neighboring lakes and streams, establishing new populations. Conservation biologists were elated. Extinction wasn’t inevitable after all.

Leading the charge to save the two frog species is the National Park Service, now finalizing an environmental impact statement that proposes to eradicate alien trout from 87 former frog ponds in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks over the next 25 to 35 years. Mechanical means would be used wherever possible, but 38 of the 87 ponds are so inaccessible that rotenone is the only option. Trout would be left in 462 ponds in the parks, so there would be plenty of fishing opportunity.

Danny Boiano, the parks’ aquatic ecologist, told me this: “Since the 1970s there have been over a hundred studies revealing major negative effects from alien trout and major positive effects after trout removal. If there are frogs nearby, they immediately move into the restored habitat. We start seeing big mayfly hatches within two or three years. We see the rosy finches come in and feed on the mayflies. We see garter snakes come in. We see the nutcrackers and blackbirds come in. In one area we removed fish from three lakes. Baseline frog surveys before trout removal revealed only 134 adults and 53 tadpoles in the two lakes that had frogs. Within two years there were 5,000 frogs and 15,000 tadpoles.”

Knapp adds this: “We’re losing the frog because we’ve taken away its habitat and replaced it with alien fish. People take that statement and say, ‘All the fish need to be removed to recover frogs.’ No. We need a balance between providing fisheries and providing habitat for native species. It’s all about the gray between the black and white. And most people, including the media, focus on the black and the white.”

Of course the chemophobes are in full cry. Wilderness Watch (committed to everything in wilderness except what should live there) and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (committed to alternatives that don’t exist) are basing much of their opposition on the wives’ tale that there’s a “link” between rotenone and Parkinson’s disease. Nearly as goosey is the High Sierra Hikers Association, which suggests that the Park Service is plotting “indiscriminate application of chemical poisons.”

“Wilderness Watch is unbelievable,” declares Knapp. “They even have a problem with gillnets in wilderness. I’ve had discussions with them and said, ‘Come on; impacts with a gillnet are trivial compared to the huge impact of having trout in every one of these ponds.’”

But such opposition from the crackpot gallery is inevitable and expected. What surprises and dismays is the reaction of newspaper editors, chamber-of-commerce types and, especially, anglers. At least around the Sierra, most of these folks see frogs as silly, superfluous and, in this case, in the way.

This from a staff-written editorial by Feather Publishing, which puts out six weekly newspapers: “Way too much energy and tax dollars are being dedicated toward making sure the yellow-legged frog has a comfortable place to live . . . . If the yellow-legged frog disappears, would anyone notice? Seriously. Does anyone really care? Extinction is a part of evolution. Millions of species that once inhabited our planet are gone. They were replaced with species more suited to the environment. It’s called survival of the fittest. The strong adapt and survive. Instead of removing the trout maybe we should just add more frogs.”

If that excuse for human-caused extinction sounds reasonable, bear in mind that it applies equally to Atlantic salmon, numerous races of steelhead and Pacific salmon, all cutthroat trout, golden trout, Gila trout, Apache trout, bull trout, sub-Canada-Alaska grayling and bluefin tuna, to mention just a few.

In Plumas County alien trout (brookies) will be removed only from Gold Lake, but Ron Horton of the County Fish and Game Commission issued this warning: “If they are considering the brook trout to be non-native, then all brook trout in all streams and all lakes of Plumas County are vulnerable to removal.”

And The Plumas County News ran this editorial: “What if a yellow-legger is seen swimming in Bucks Lake, Lake Davis or Lake Almanor? What will happen if a yellow-legged frog is spotted hopping around a pond in some rancher’s pasture?”

“To me this is just another way of destroying our economy,” Terry Swofford, chair of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, told California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Kevin Thomas at the board’s May 6, 2014 meeting. “You’ve got too many ‘oligists’ on your payroll.”

All this has left Knapp disgusted and disheartened. “The response has been way, way beyond anything we’ve ever seen,” he says. “As usual, a lot of this opposition is based on misinformation. There have been threats of violence against staff doing those trout removals and full-page ads taken out in newspapers.”
One of these ads, from the “Committee to Save Gold Lake,” included this caption under a photo of a kid fishing: “Your tax dollars at work. Is this really fair to our children to NOT EVER EXPERIENCE again the fishing, hiking and all around family fun this beautiful area offers?”

Hiking? There would be no kind of hiking restriction anywhere in the Sierra. As for Gold Lake, it’s all of 10 acres. It’s also the only possible recovery site in the county because there’s no other pond with nearby frogs.

“It’s hard to say if this genetic clade [one level below a species, a group with similar characteristics and a common ancestor] of Rana sierrae will survive because there are only seven populations left,” remarks state biologist Sarah Mussulman. “There are three clades of Rana sierrae; they can still interbreed, but given enough time and isolation they might eventually become three separate species. If this clade goes extinct, a whole chunk of the biodiversity goes with it. But we’re getting comments like ‘The frog should die off because it’s too stupid to survive.’”

Attitudes in other counties are no better. At least one tackle shop—Reagan’s Sporting Goods, in Bishop—has been distributing anti-frog buttons. Assuming from the get-go that there will be no more fishing available in all of Mono County and that all hiking will be banned, the County Board of Supervisors sent this complaint to the Fish and Wildlife Service: “If all the visitors participating in fishing were to vacation elsewhere due to new restrictions, the economic analysis demonstrates visitor spending could be reduced by $87 million. If restrictions on hiking activities are also imposed and those visitors choose to go elsewhere, the economic impact in Mono County could be $104.8 million.”

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot,” wrote Aldo Leopold, who counted himself among the latter group. I count myself in that group also, and I know that I am not alone among my fellow anglers. So I reached out to enlightened elements of California’s trout-fishing community.

I turned first to CalTrout, traditionally a leader when it comes to extraction of destructive aliens from native ecosystems (except when those aliens are trout). Its stated policy (as of 2001) was that proposals for removing trout from 20 to 30 percent of former mountain yellow-legged frog ponds were “premature.” My requests for an updated policy went unanswered. However, CalTrout did publish a 2011 interview with Anders Halverson, author of the National Outdoor Book Award winner An Entirely Synthetic Fish (which chronicled the hatchery-facilitated proliferation of rainbow trout in all the places they don’t belong). In that interview Halverson made this comment: “To me it [mountain yellow-legged frog recovery] is a no-brainer; if by removing this fish from just some of the lakes we can help save entire species—from the frogs to the birds who eat the Callibaetis to everything else—then it’s an easy choice. They’re not going to eliminate trout from all the lakes, just a few of them.”

I turned next to Trout Unlimited, hoping for a statement similar to the one I got from TU’s past president, Charles Gauvin, when I wrote about alien trout control (not eradication) on the Colorado River in order the save the humpback chub, bonytail chub, razorback sucker and Colorado pike minnow, all endangered natives (see “Role Reversal on the Colorado,” April 2003). In that piece I quoted Gauvin as follows: “If we fight this, what will we say to Walleyes Unlimited when they complain about some coho recovery program in Oregon? Let’s grow up. This is a problem we have to live with in these altered habitats where trout are a mitigation species. If the science is good, what business have we to be complaining about efforts to save a native species?”

My hope went unrealized. Still, I was relieved to learn that TU is fine with frog recovery. However, in its comment to the Fish and Wildlife Service it advances a popular misconception about the Endangered Species Act: “Trout Unlimited strongly believes that protections afforded [the mountain yellow-legged frog] under the [Endangered Species] Act need to also explicitly protect access and opportunities to fishing—specifically trout fishing—on public lands.” The act requires agencies to recover listed species where possible. So where it comes down to saving alien trout or endangered native frogs, there is no legal choice. The frogs take priority. If an agency “explicitly protects” the aliens instead, it is in violation of federal law.
TU does make one excellent point: If any pure populations of trout—goldens, for instance—turn up in the high Sierras, they need to be preserved as reservoirs for possible recovery in their natural habitat. The state, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service couldn’t agree more.

Are enlightened anglers really in the minority around California’s high Sierra? Yes, according to enlightened angler Ralph Cutter. Cutter owns the California School of Fly Fishing, runs a guide service and has written such important fishing books as The Sierra Trout Guide. “It’s amazing how many of these guys are vehemently anti-frog,” he told me. “I’m guessing at least 70 percent are opposed to recovery . . . . The rhetoric is so wild. The entire ecosystem needs these frogs back. Five years ago I thought they’d go extinct, but now there’s hope. I really feel strongly about this. We can’t just pick and choose among endemic species we’re going to protect based on personal preferences. The Sierra should not be managed like a pee-wee golf course for fishermen. I appreciate the fishing opportunities the Sierra gives us. I’ve written at great length about fishing in the Sierra. I love it. But there is certainly room for us to develop management protocols that protect frogs.”

And here’s part of Cutter’s comment to the Park Service: “I would much rather leave a legacy of as natural an ecosystem as possible, rather than an artificial and synthetic landscape designed for the amusement of certain enthusiasts including myself.”

I have never known the Native Fish Society to be on the wrong side of a management issue, and it didn’t disappoint me this time. Speaking specifically about high-Sierra frog habitat, science and conservation director Bill Bakke offered this: “Releasing hatchery trout in [these] high-mountain lakes is like passing out drugs in a grade school. They both upset the neighborhood because they don’t belong. Fishery managers have for a long, long time assumed that nature can be improved by adding species where they do not belong. Each high-mountain lake is a beautiful and unique place and is appreciated for what it is by those who visit. So why treat them like amusement parks needing just one more ride to sell more tickets?”

The ongoing frog war gives rise to interesting questions: Why do we fish? Is fishing a mere “sport” like bowling? Or when we venture into the outdoors do we seek something more than meat or bent rods? Does the appearance of a rare creature like the gray-crowned rosy finch add something special to an outing? Or is it just another dumb dickybird that eats trout food?

When my grandchildren come to visit we do “’tend” fishing,” “’tend” being their contraction of “pretend.” I glue washers to stuffed cloth fish, and we angle for them from the couch with refrigerator magnets suspended by dental floss from Tinker Toys. I submit that there’s not a whole lot of difference between ’tend fishing and fishing for malnourished aliens in alien-degraded ecosystems bereft of such important parts as frogs, birds, snakes and invertebrates.
I further submit that a society unwilling to save its native frogs will be unwilling to save its native fish.

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--from Fly Rod & Reel