George Ochenski is my hero. He’s not averse to opposing popular causes or supporting unpopular ones if he sees fit. I generally agree with George, or at least appreciate his views on important issues. When I disagree, it is usually on a minor point. That is not the case with his recent column, Deadly Choice.
In the article Ochenski expresses opposition to the South Fork Westslope Cutthroat Conservation Project by Montana FWP based on a short, but convincing video, Dead Wrong, from an organization called Stop River Killing. The video makes some good points, distorts a few others and ignores many.
Is it wrong to use poison to replace a clearly invasive fish species with what we today believe to be a better species? Are we mistaken to try to help native species that evolved in this environment long before man was around to screw it up? These are hard questions and there may be no correct answers. The article and video would have us believe that we are decimating high mountain lakes forever and may be making the same type of blunders that were made in the past. Their conclusions are not borne out by the facts. Certainly we made mistakes, but does that mean that we simply live with those errors forever?
He argues that our main focus should be on habitat improvement. That point is hard to disagree with. We have thoroughly messed up habitat for our native fish by dam building, poor logging and agricultural practices and the introduction of nonnative species on purpose, or in error. Our actions have corrected some of these problems. Habitat improvement can go only so far and is of little use if it only serves to enhance populations of “bigger and stupider” invaders. BPA money was made available for attempting the mitigation of some of our mistakes through the Northwest Power Act. The South Fork Flathead is a largely intact watershed cut off from further invasion by nonnative species due to Hungry Horse Dam and protected by wilderness. That makes it a good place to begin to try to restore cutthroat populations. There is no habitat restoration to do in these high mountain lakes. They are already in near-pristine condition. The lakes contain mostly isolated populations. Some contained no fish species whatsoever before we planted nonnatives.
While it is easy to impugn the killing thousands of fish with poison, the fact is that we make these kinds of decisions every day. If grasshoppers decimate your alfalfa fields, you don’t plant more alfalfa to grow more grasshoppers. You likely spray deadly insecticides which are harmful to the environment. If you have knapweed in your yard, you pull it up or apply herbicide. If wolves are killing your calves, you don’t improve your pasture to grow more calves. That’s why God invented the 30-30. No matter how they got where they are, nonnative species threaten the existence of fish that we considered important enough to be named a state symbol.
The South Fork Project is a long way from perfect, but a lot of planning and consideration has gone into to making it work. A long-term monitoring plan is in place. Only a couple of lakes are treated each year so that if goals are not met, the project can be modified or halted with little damage. Fish are much more susceptible to the poison being used than are other species so, low concentrations can be used with little collateral damage. Lakes treated so far are showing excellent recovery of insect and amphibian populations shortly after poisoning.
Will we make mistakes? Surely. Will we end up with 100% native fish in the South Fork? Hardly. Are these decisions mainly driven by political considerations? You figure that out. The end game here is not to improve fishing or avoid an endangered species listing. The priority should be to improve chances for long-term survival of native animals that were here thousands of years before we arrived and whose plight can be directly traced to our actions. In some cases it is possible to correct mistakes made in the past. Fear that we will mess up again is not a reason for accepting an outcome that is simply wrong.