Fishy business whirling
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1997:
High-profile U.S. and Canadian efforts to restore endangered western
salmon runs have their counterpart in a restoration of native trout to
Yellowstone, announced in January 1997 by Yellowstone National Park
superintendent Mike Finley.
Like the salmon restoration, the trout restoration is driven by concern
for declining biodiversity––but unlike the salmon projects, is not associated
with actual scarcity of fish. The problem gripping the Pacific Northwest
is that the combination of heavy fishing, dam-building, and silted spawning
streams caused by logging not only annihilated salmon runs, but also built
industries whose very existence conflicts with the recovery of salmon, even as
fishing also depends upon having abundant salmon of the more coveted subspecies
[the less coveted pink salmon seem to be thriving by the absence of
their bigger kin].
Tens of thousands of human livelihoods are directly affected by
salmon policy. Political pressure to keep fishing quotas unsustainably high
while blaming and shooting seals and sea lions is correspondingly intense.
The problem in Yellowstone is simply that generations ago, recreational
fishery managers realized that the native trout populations breed too
slowly to fulfill demand, so stocked the most accessible parts of the watershed
regularly with nonnative rainbow and brown trout. Eventually the introduced
species took over many of the best parts of the trout habitat.
Then, in 1994, a parasitic ailment called whirling disease hit rainbow
trout in the Missouri River basin, including 10 major Montana salmon
rivers––and soon spread to 18 states. At the same time, Yellowstone officials
became aware that nonnative trout were fast devouring the native cutthroat
trout in Yellowstone Lake.
The Park Service decided it would be a good idea to get rid of the
rainbows, in favor of relatively rare fluvial arctic grayling and westslope cutthroat,
a different and declining subspecies from the Yellowstone Lake cutthroat,
wherever possible. To do this, the Park Service would poison the
streams in question to eliminate rainbow and brown trout, then stock the
native species. Then artificial waterfalls would have to be built to keep rainbow
and brown trout from recapturing the restoration zones.
The plan has drawn severe skepticism from Senator Conrad Burns
(R-Montana), who is concerned that sport fishing opportunities will diminish,
hurting the incomes of outfitters and guides. In effect, the Park Service may
be allowed to restore native trout only at cost of maintaining huge populations
of nonnative trout as well.
Whirling disease, meanwhile, seems to have been spread by some
of the facilities, public and private, that breed and stock rainbow and brown
trout. Inbreeding may have something to do with making trout vulnerable.
The politics of that situation are particularly interesting in Utah. As
an Associated Press feature explained on October 14, “Utah governor Mike
Leavitt’s family runs a trout farm in southern Utah that has had several
whirling disease problems, including the business’s no-contest pleas in 1992
to eight misdemeanor charges for illegally moving fish. The governor retains
one seventh ownership interest in the Road Creek Ranch, but takes no active
management role. Oversight of commercial fisheries,” the AP expose continued,
“was shifted from the Department of Widlife Resources to the
Department of Agriculture in 1994, two years after Leavitt’s election. Critics
said DWR was being squeezed out because of its tough enforcement.”
The AP account appeared three weeks after Salt Lake City Deseret
N e w s outdoor editor Ray Grass disclosed several failures of the Utah
Department of Agriculture to detect whirling disease in privately owned ponds
near state-owned facilities, along with the possibility that Leavitt’s family
sold diseased trout in 1996. Some may have been stocked at Fairmont Park in
Salt Lake City at a May 1996 “free fishing day” organized to hook children on
hooking fish. Utah state fish pathologist Ron Goode pronounced the
Fairmount Park pond free of whirling disease, however, on October 17.