Writers on the Range: Underwater, an extinction story is being told (column)
Writers on the Range
As children, most of us learned about the passenger pigeons, whose huge flocks darkened America’s skies before they became extinct a century ago. Another lesson came from the buffalo that we did our best to eradicate from the Great Plains. Less understood is what goes on underwater in our lakes, rivers and streams. Now, a new report by Trout Unlimited shows disturbing parallels with those old stories of loss: Extinction has already eliminated three species of native trout, while many other species of trout have vanished from large parts of their historic range.
The “State of the Trout,” the first comprehensive assessment of the status of America’s native trout, says that only 25 species remain, with 13 of those occupying less than one-quarter of their historic habitat. This is grim news for angler and non-angler alike, and a warning to anyone who assumes there will always be water fit to drink.
Trout serve as our canary in the coal mine for the state of the environment. Trout cannot survive without clean water — exactly the kind of water we’d like our children to be able to play in without getting sick. Trout fishing, and fishing in general, is also a big business — generating over $114 billion annually, according to the American Sportfishing Association.
There’s no secret about what we need to do to keep our native trout from going the way of the passenger pigeon. First, we must protect the remaining healthiest habitats — the places that supply the coldest, cleanest water. Second, habitat restoration must be undertaken at a larger scale to connect river systems, so that trout are better able to withstand floods, fire and drought. This work will also help to make human communities safer and more resilient by building floodplains that can absorb and dissipate flood flows.
Controlling the introduction and spread of invasive species is important, too. Hatcheries mask habitat that has been degraded. Stocking non-native fish on top of native fish does nothing to restore native trout to a healthy environment; instead, it is a backwards and self-defeating activity.
Finally, we need to conserve and modernize our water resources, become more efficient in the use of water, and make sure that development does not compromise native trout habitat. Fortunately, trout are remarkably resilient creatures. Given half a chance, they will respond and rebound.
In southern Colorado, for example, a joint project is restoring Kerber Creek, damaged by over a century of hardrock mining. More than 20 toxic tailings piles line the creek, making it toxic to trout. Thanks to Trout Unlimited and its partners, private landowners along the stream are working with the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and others, to restore the creek. The project will not only bring the creek back to its pre-mining health, it will also begin to return native Rio Grande cutthroat to the watershed.
Another example is in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, where more than 75 miles of private land trout habitat has already been restored. Pre-restoration fish counts indicated only 200 trout per mile of stream, while post-restoration surveys show over 2,000 fish per mile.
And in Maine, Trout Unlimited worked with a coalition of conservation groups, state and federal agencies, tribes and utility companies to come to an agreement that led to the removal of three dams. This reopened over 1,200 miles of habitat to imperiled Atlantic salmon and other species such as shad, herring and striped bass.
The first lesson that emerges from these collaborative stewardships is that partnerships are vital. Every time landowners, farmers, ranchers and students work to replant streamside areas and repair irrigation diversions, they build community in an otherwise fractured society. In many cases, the relationships that emerge from previously competing interests may be as important to the well-being of the country as the restoration work itself.
The second lesson is about leadership. Every example of recovery and restoration cited above and in the “State of the Trout” report, originated with just one person, or a small group of people. Nature needs passionate hopeful leaders, and many are coming forward.
Native trout are in genuine trouble in the United States, but we can help them by helping the waterways they need to survive. In doing so, we help ourselves and energize our communities as well. This work of restoration demonstrates the unbridled optimism and confidence that makes America great, and proves that a few dedicated and committed people can make a difference, and in their own way, change the world.
Chris Wood is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited.
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