Wilderness Watch Needs to Stop Working Against Scaled Icons of Wilderness

by Ted Williams

In multiple national outlets Kevin Proescholdt of Wilderness Watch wrongly alleges “factual errors” in my recent Writers on the Range op-ed defending the National Park Service’s effort to save endangered mountain yellow-legged frogs by poisoning and gillnetting a small percentage of the alien trout that prey on them. Killing Fish to Save Frogs)

One might suppose that a group with the name Wilderness Watch would understand the Wilderness Act provides for pesticide use to preserve wilderness assets like native fish and wildlife: “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as affecting the jurisdiction or responsibilities of the several States with respect to wildlife and fish in the national forests.” Federal permits for pesticide use are routinely issued.

Proeschold writes: “Paiute cutthroat trout occupied pretty much all of its very limited native habitat; the project Wilderness Watch and several allies challenged was aimed at establishing a trout population upstream of its native range and in naturally fishless waters in order to create a new angling opportunity.” False. Paiute cutthroat trout occupied none of their native habitat. They were eliminated by alien rainbow trout. Rotenone treatments restored them to their native habitat. The Paiute population upstream was already established, and that establishment had nothing to do with “angling opportunity.” It had everything to do with saving this threatened species from extinction as mandated by the Endangered Species Act.

The Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and California Fish and Wildlife used rotenone to save the Paiute cutthroat trout from being hybridized off the planet by alien rainbow trout. But litigation from Wilderness Watch delayed the project for years, nearly ushering the rarest salmonid in America into extinction.

Proescholdt proclaims that Wilderness Watch doesn’t oppose the use of gillnets to remove alien trout, but the public comments from his organization in the Park Service’s environmental review prove otherwise.

Proescholdt’s claim that rotenone “kills all organisms that use gills -- fish, amphibians, and even macroinvertebrates” and that “these same waterways are then stocked with alien fish predator” is patently false. Amphibian adults are unaffected by rotenone, and rotenone is applied after larvae have metamorphosed. The vast majority of macroinvertebrates survive by a process called “catastrophic drift.” They sense rotenone, dislodge, and go downstream. The few that succumb are rapidly replaced, and populations generally do better because they aren’t eaten by alien fish. Finally, the fish stocked are imperiled natives, not “alien fish predators.”

Most distressing is Wilderness Watch’s notion that projects to save icons of wilderness like the federally threatened Paiute cutthroat trout are motivated, in Proescholdt’s words, by “a zeal to promote fishing.” Wilderness Watch imagines that Trout Unlimited volunteers hike 14 miles into the high Sierra to catch seven-inch Paiute cutthroat.

Throughout the West, Wilderness Watch opposes, impedes and sometimes blocks rotenone projects. It can't conceive that native-fish recovery could be about anything other than sport. This is how it dismisses Gila trout recovery, also mandated by the Endangered Species Act: "It is both sad and ironic that it was Aldo Leopold who convinced the Forest Service to protect the Gila [National Forest] as our nation's first wilderness in the 1930s—now, it is in danger of being converted to a fish farm for recreationists."

I wish Kevin Proescholdt and Wilderness Watch would realize that fish are wildlife, too.


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