Last-minute stay of execution for Alpine County fish |

Last-minute stay of execution for Alpine County fish

Jeff Munson and Jo Rafferty

A day before California Department of Fish and Game was to unleash poison into an Alpine County creek that would exterminate fish species so that a rare trout could be planted, a federal court judge ordered the kill be stopped.

Concerned that rare species may be destroyed in the process of poisoning 11 miles of watershed south of Lake Tahoe at Silver King Creek, Federal District Court Judge Frank C. Damrell in Sacramento issued the restraining order, saying he was concerned the fish killing poison may harm other threatened species in and around the creek.

Damrell’s action comes after Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly Jr. ruled on Friday that a state plan to preserve a rare species of trout by poisoning the waterway should not be delayed.

The federal court ruling was announced late in the afternoon, and a spokesman for California Fish and Game, which was to oversee the project, was not available for comment.

An attorney representing a consortium of conservation groups that want the fish kill stopped said they’re pleased with the judge’s injunction.

“The judge preserved the community’s right to know what the results of this poisoning would be on a pristine area that Californians care deeply about,” said Pete Frost, an environmental attorney with the Oregon-based Western Environmental Law Center. “The court recognizes that rotenone kills and requires the agency to be sure that we understand the affects of using this chemical before we do it.”

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The case was filed by the nonprofit conservation groups California for Alternatives to Toxics, Wilderness Watch and Alpine County-based Friends of Hope Valley.

According to a statement Tuesday from the law center, the court halted the poisoning until the Fish and Game Department releases information showing whether other rare species live in the stream and, if so, how they would recover.

Crews had entered the Carson Iceberg Wilderness on Monday to use rotenone to poison fish in the middle section of Silver King Creek. Plans were made to begin poisoning the creek today.

Before the ruling, officials from the California Department of Fish and Game and Nevada Fish and Wildlife said they were confident the poisoning would not be stopped.

Four Nevada Department of Wildlife biologists, plus several officials from California Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service made the 3-1Ú2 mile trek into Llewellyn Falls in Silver Creek Canyon on Monday. Supplies had been brought in Sunday afternoon on horseback and more were being packed in on Tuesday.

State officials hope to recover the native Paiute cutthroat trout by eliminating its competitors for food with the fish killing poison.

“We just felt confident we were going to complete the project,” said California Fish and Game Chief Deputy Director Paul Stein. “We were hoping to take the first step in preserving the Paiute cutthroat trout.

“The treatments will remove the salmonids (and) other types of trout,” said Stein before the ruling. “That way we don’t have to worry about any future hybridization. That’s the goal.”

Multiple treatments are planned for the project, which will extend downstream of Llewellyn Falls to Silver Creek Canyon. The project involves closing off the area for a period of two to three years.

The Department of Fish and Game performed similar poisonings in the early 1990s in the upper section of the creek, effectively restoring the trout in the creek and its tributaries above Llewellyn Falls.

Conservationists have consistently argued that the poison would destroy other organisms critical to the ecosystem, as well as endanger humans.

Sacramento Judge Connelly said Friday that a temporary stay of the project “would be against the public interest” because there wasn’t enough evidence before him to decide that the “degrading impacts” on the watershed and its ecosystem outweigh the public’s interest in preserving the Paiute.

The Paiute is on the federal list of threatened species. According to California and federal officials, unless fish that are not native to its habitat are exterminated, the trout will have to be upgraded to endangered.

Rotenone has been particularly controversial in the Sierra Nevada since the state used it in an unsuccessful effort to eliminate voracious northern pike from Lake Davis north of Lake Tahoe in 1997.

Conservationists, led by the Eureka-based Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, challenged the Paiute project with lawsuits in federal and state courts in Sacramento.

South Lake Tahoe resident Mary Lou Mosbacher, admits she has not belonged to any particular group, but has been involved in several area issues as an independent. She attends every Alpine County Board of Supervisors meeting with rotenone poisoning on the agenda. She has been fighting rotenone poisoning as a means to preserve species of fish since 1987.

“We can’t save everything. I think things are supposed to evolve out and in,” said Mosbacher. “I don’t understand why, after seeing what happened at Lake Davis, they would want to proceed.”