LAWSUIT FORCES REEVALUATION OF WILDERNESS STREAM POISONING PROJECT
CONSIDERATION OF ALTERNATIVES SOUGHT
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE October 9, 2003
Alpine County, CA - A controversial Forest Service plan to poison a stream within a National Forest Wilderness Area in conjunction with a native trout restoration project has been withdrawn as a result of a lawsuit filed by conservationists seeking a full public environmental review of the project, including consideration of less harmful means to remove non-native fish. The project is intended to replace non-native trout planted by the California Department of Fish and Game (“CDFG”) in Silver King Creek within the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness Area with Paiute cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki seleniris), a native fish listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In August 2003, the Toiyabe National Forest gave approval to CDFG to apply the pesticide Rotenone in 11 miles of the Silver King Creek drainage, a tributary to the East Fork of the Carson River. The Center for Biological Diversity (“CBD”) and prominent Sierra aquatic ecologist Nancy Erman filed a lawsuit in August 2003 claiming approval of the poisoning project violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), for inadequate environmental review of the project, including failure to evaluate the potential ecosystem damage from the poisoning and potential irreversible damage to the food chain Paiute trout depend upon, and failure to consider non-chemical restoration alternatives. The Forest Service withdrew the project on August 27, 2003.
“We fully support the removal of non-native fish and the restoration of Paiute cutthroat trout throughout their historic range in the Sierra,” said Jeff Miller, spokesperson for CBD, “however, there are potentially very serious consequences to poisoning this ecosystem and we want to make sure the right tool is chosen for the job. If you’re attempting to fix an expensive watch, you don’t reach first for the sledgehammer - neither should the state necessarily be poisoning streams in a wilderness area without looking at other options.” “To move forward, the Forest Service needs to conduct a full review under NEPA assessing different restoration options, including alternatives to chemical removal of non-native fish, and to analyze the impacts of non-native fish stocking on native trout” added Miller.
“The California Department of Fish and Game and the US Forest Service have for far too long ignored the scientific questions raised by their stream and lake poisoning projects and their fish stocking programs. It makes no sense to claim that you are saving one species while you put many other species and a whole biological community at risk.” said Nancy Erman, Specialist Emeritus in aquatic ecology and freshwater invertebrates, University of California, Davis.
Ongoing non-native fish stocking is a serious threat to Paiute cutthroat trout and many other native species of fish, amphibians, and invertebrates. Non-native trout compete for food and habitat resources and also interbreed and hybridize with native trout, reducing their ability to survive natural and human-caused ecosystem changes. For decades, the Forest Service has allowed CDFG to stock non-native trout in wilderness lakes and streams throughout California. Because of this practice, some populations of native trout species have become threatened or endangered, including the Paiute cutthroat. However, the practice of stocking non-native fish continues and is promoted by CDFG.
The proposed project would have allowed the use of the pesticide Rotenone for up to 3 consecutive years in 11 miles of the Silver King Creek stream and tributary system (including poisoning of adjacent seeps and springs) and spraying of adjacent Tamarack Lake with Rotenone by helicopter or motorized equipment. The Rotenone would kill non-native trout that cannot be removed by electro-fishing. However, Rotenone is not species-specific, and will kill any species in the stream, lake, seeps or springs that obtains oxygen from water. Past Rotenone projects conducted by CDFG, including projects in this same watershed, have caused unintended fish kills downstream of the project area and persistence of toxic substances in the stream system.
Rotenone use poses the potential for irreversible damage to stream ecosystems and loss of other non-target native species. Studies show that Rotenone causes significant long-term effects on aquatic invertebrates, the food source for trout and other aquatic life. A study conducted after a 1991-1993 poisoning of Silver King Creek shows that the diversity of invertebrates was significantly lower even three years after the project was completed. There is also the potential for severe reductions in food supply to animals such as bats, flycatchers, warblers, amphibians, other fish, and fish-eating birds. This watershed is historic habitat for the mountain yellow-legged frog, a species in serious decline. Silver King Creek was treated with Rotenone in 1964, 1977 and in the early 1990s - the Forest Service has failed to analyze or discuss why non-native trout still persist there before proceeding with another poisoning.
The Forest Service initially solicited public comment on the Rotenone project in July 2002, before completing a biological assessment of the project’s impacts. Numerous groups and individuals (including the CBD, Nancy Erman, aquatic entomologist Dr. David Herbst, and the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board) commented on the failure to consider non-poison alternatives, the failure to disclose impacts of past Rotenone projects, and the failure to adequately analyze the potentially significant and cumulative impacts, and requested that the Forest Service prepare a joint environmental impact statement with CDFG. The Forest Service indicated they would not complete the NEPA process, never issued a decision document to approve the proposed action, never responded to public comments, and never prepared an environmental impact statement, nor did they prepare a joint environmental analysis with CDFG. The Forest Service gave verbal approval to CDFG to proceed with the Project, but did not provide notice of this decision to the CBD or to the public, nor give any opportunity to appeal the decision.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit maintained that aquatic habitat management needs to be sensitive to retaining or restoring all native species and ecological functions, and that mechanized removal of non-native fish should be considered as an alternative to poisoning, where fish removal is necessary. One purpose of considering a non-poison alternative is for the agency and the public to be able to weigh the various impacts and relative success of such alternatives.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for ensuring the recovery and survival of the Paiute cutthroat trout, is in the process of revising a Paiute Cutthroat Trout Recovery Plan. This new plan will provide a strategy and specific measures to be taken for the species’ recovery and eventual de-listing. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not made a final determination of what action is necessary for the species’ survival and recovery. The need for expanding the existing distribution of Paiute cutthroat trout beyond its native range in the Silver King Creek basin has not been examined publicly against the risk of Rotenone to other species in the ecosystem.
Attorney Julia Olson of Wild Earth Advocates filed the successful legal action against the Forest Service.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to the protection of native species and their habitats. The Center works to protect and restore natural ecosystems and imperiled species through science, education, policy, and environmental law. The Center has been active in habitat protection and restoration of native trout throughout the western U.S. and is a member of the Western Native Trout Campaign. For more information visit www.biologicaldiversity.org or www.westerntrout.org/trout/