SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - A controversial plan to poison an 11 mile stretch of the Silver King Creek to protect an threatened trout species gained approval from the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board on Wednesday night.
The water board voted 5 to 1 during a meeting at Lake Tahoe Community College to permit the California Department of Fish and Game to use the pesticide rotenone to remove introduced trout species and increase numbers of Paiute cutthroat trout southeast of Markleeville.
The introduced species - Lahontan cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, and golden trout - in Silver King Creek have the potential to interbreed with the Paiute cutthroat trout and Fish and Game staff fear hybridization will eliminate one of the rarest trout subspecies in the world.
Under the approved project, Fish and Game would stock Paiute cutthroat trout in what is believed to be their native range after rotenone is used to kill the introduced trout species, a process that could see once a year pesticide applications over multiple years.
The Department of Fish and Game has used rotenone in the creek several times between 1964 and 1993 as part of restoration efforts surrounding the threatened subspecies of trout, but has never attempted to eliminate the introduced species in the stretch of the creek in question.
Fish and Game has historically stocked the area with trout species they now hope to eliminate.
Several trout-focused conservation groups said they supported the project Wednesday night.
"From our perspective, this is a no-brainer," said Mike Caltagirone, the president of the Sagebrush Chapter of Trout Unlimited. "We need to have this fish back where it belongs."
Stateline resident and fisherman Dave Long also said he supported the protect. While he said he would miss the opportunity to fish for the variety of trout species already in Silver King Creek, he said he looked forward to the day when the Paiute cutthroat trout would be taken off the threatened species list.
The trout fishing experience in Silver King Creek would be unique and has the potential to drive anglers to the area, Long said.
Other people at Wednesday's meeting raised concerns about rotenone's effect on invertebrates and whether the pesticide will persist in the creek beyond the few days a year projected by Fish and Game.
"There are all kinds of things we didn't know about toxins in the 1990's when you added rotenone to the basin plan," said Laurel Ames, a representative of a grassroots group called the Friends of Silver Creek.
She called for the water board to deny the permit and revise their rules regarding the use of rotenone. Ames said electro-fishing, where fish are stunned and removed, would be a viable option for restoring the Paiute cutthroat trout, following question from water board member Amy Horne about what should be done to restore the species in Silver King Creek.
Electro-fishing would not be effective at removing the introduced fish because the stream provides an abundance of hiding places inaccessible to electro-fishing equipment, said Stafford Lehr, a senior environmental scientist with Fish and Game, on Wednesday.
Water board member Eric Sandel, the only board member to vote against a permit for the project, said water board staff were too dependent on information from Fish and Game during the development of the project, noting an expert on invertebrates on the water board's staff was not consulted.
Water Board member Jack Clarke, who eventually voted to permit the project, initially expressed concerns about the economic impact to Alpine County from the loss of fishing under the plan.
"We want to restore the fish, but is this the right time to do it," Clarke asked.
The decision seemed simpler for board member Mike Dispsenza, who said he approved the permit because he favored the people who "know trout."
"I think that I'm going to go with the people that have trout in their name," Dispenza said.
The use of rotenone in Silver King Creek has the potential to affect the use of rotenone in fisheries management throughout the state, Lehr said.
"If we fail here, it fails there, we understand that," Lehr said.
Lehr's statement came following direction from James Charlton, who acknowledged concerns from audience members before approving the project.
"Fish and Game, do this right," Charlton said. "We don't want these credible people to come back and tell us we are wrong."