Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Fish fight: the bull trout waits patiently for his new survival plans

Last week I attended what was basically summer camp for natural resource journalists. Eighteen journalists gallivanted around Montana on a large bus stopping to chat with world-class experts about everything from wolves to oil and gas development to climate change. In our off-time, we drank like undergrads. One of the stops on this epic journey was the shore of Flathead Lake.

Under the vast, blue-green blanket of the lake’s surface nature moves out of order. The lake houses over one million lake trout, a non-native species, and just a few thousand native bull trout. U.S. Fish and Wildlife listed bull trout as a threatened species in 1998. The lake trout’s deleterious dominance is relatively recent, it is human-caused, and it continues to get more acute.

Lake trout were introduced to Flathead Lake in 1905 and for years co-existed relatively well with the bull trout because there wasn’t a good food source for them in the lake. In 1981, Mysis shrimp began to enter the food web in Flathead Lake from other tributaries where they had been introduced to fatten up another invasive species, the tasty kokanee. The shrimp come up towards the surface to feed at nighttime but during the day they sink to the bottom of the lake, which is precisely where the bottom-feeding lake trout hang out. As greater numbers of shrimp sank down the water column towards the waiting lake trout the non-native fish population exploded, leaving little room for the bull trout.

Now, the same agencies that introduced the various invasive species into the lake want to help the bull trout recover its rightful place in the Flathead Lake ecosystem. The problem, however, is they cannot seem to agree upon the best way to do it.

We met with representatives from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey to hear their respective thoughts on how to best approach a recovery. The word of the day up until that point had been “collaboration,” and at our preceding stops (and, actually, on the following stops, as well) the various range and wildlife managers we spoke with emphasized the importance of collaboration amongst stakeholders. Here, though, on the shore of Flathead Lake we sat politely at two picnic tables while several men from these agencies plead their cases, argued and all but physically assaulted each other. It was MFWP against everybody else. If not for the journalists’ visit, the clashing parties in front of us would not be communicating, they admitted. Their exchanges were tense, their words strong, and their positions immovable. A reporter sitting next to me scribbled in her notepad and passed it over. “Fish fight,” it read.

The management strategy thus far has been to encourage more sport fishing. In 2000 the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, who co-manage the lake, adopted a management plan based on research and set up a fishing competition called Mack Days. “If you want to recover a species you have to eliminate the biggest risk,” said Wade Fredenberg with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Far and away the single greatest risk to the persistence of bull trout in this entire ecosystem is lake trout.” The Tribes invest about $400,000 annually to run the competition. The point, basically, is to encourage anglers to remove as many lake trout out of the Flathead’s waters as they can. All told, anglers remove from the lake about 70,000 fish per year. Still, that has not been enough to help the bull trout recover, a Tribes fisheries biologist, Barry Hansen, says. Not to mention, the management plan expired in 2010.

At the end of June, the Tribes released an Environmental Impact Statement that proposes more drastic management possibilities to give the miserable bull trout population a fighting chance. The EIS offers up four options for consideration: do nothing, ratchet the annual harvest to 25% of the population, 50%, or 75%. The proposal also introduces new tools for harvesting more fish, like the controversial gillnet, which, opponents say, removes fish indiscriminately. The Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks agency’s disagreements with the Tribes are so sharp at this point that they did not participate in this EIS.

The debate comes down to goals. The Tribes’ goal is to restore the bull trout. The fish is important to the Tribes culturally, and the Tribes have made it a priority to maintain the ecosystem in the region in as pristine condition as possible, something a disappearing native fish population hinders. For Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, recreational fishing seems more the focus. As one well-spoken journalist in the group put it, the agency’s Jim Vashro seemed to shit on the science in his attempt to find ways to maintain recreation levels on Flathead Lake.

For example, while Tribes push for ways to reduce the lake trout population, MFWP institutes a slot regulation for the fish that mandates mid-size lake trout, the ones most likely to breed and make more lake trout, be thrown back into the water so that they can one day grow to be trophy fish for anglers. Tribes want to increase the bull trout population while MFWP says they’re ‘stable’ as is. Vashro says there are currently 500 redds, or spawning grounds, which, according to the expired management plan is 60% above what is considered “secure.” Fredenberg says MFWP’s affirmation of “secure” is “garbage” and that the current redd count is 55% of the desired recovery level. As another wildlife manager familiar with controversy – he helped reintroduce wolves – told us at a wolf stop on the trip, managing wildlife is really about managing people. When we first arrived on the shore of Flathead Lake I noticed the lone woman there promptly disappeared once the men began sparring. Bonnie Ellis is a limnologist who does research on the Flathead.

When we finished speaking with the agency representatives, she reappeared and took us out on the lake in her research boat. The boat spat smoke loudly. She had altered the exhaust to pump into the air instead of the water to better guarantee clean samples. Standing with a large poster illustrating the Flathead Lake food web, she said the problem is the web itself, which has been altered magnificently from the zooplankton on up. She said the problem is water quality in the lake and algal blooms. She got emotional when she spoke about the need for long-term data sets and the lack of funding to do them. She said she can’t stand listening to the agency guys go on and on anymore.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Mexico Stories: Part II

The sun was born of a dry landscape. Today, perhaps because the Wirikuta reserve in San Luis de Potosi is its birthplace, the sun illuminates Wirikuta’s matte hillsides with the most tender glow and sets upon the desert floor in a most slow surrender. 
Wirikuta’s nooks and crannies and shrub-covered undulations give refuge to towns – they are carved into hillsides, or superimposed upon them, or else houses appear like scattered matchsticks without ever gathering into something that could be called ‘town.’ Underneath the carpet of the ground is another city, that of old mine shafts and galleries big as ballrooms carved into the rock below: silver. 
There are churches above and below the low shrubbery, and both catered to the miner. In the one above, the floors are made of what looks like the sidewalls of cedar chests; the patron saint is San Francis de Assisi. The one below is dark, the little altar illuminated only when headlamps fall upon the stone in spots. Doesn’t that make prayer somehow more personal? 
In an abandoned mine site below Real de Catorce, the altar was the only thing with any visible upkeep. The wooden portals and massive stone walls of the wearing buildings were not attended to. Water flowed out of the mine mouth; we ventured into its velvet throat to cool off from the heat, then napped on logs. The resident cat led us to a man that used to mine here. I mined all over, he told us, but came back here, because this is where I am from. Cats leave home to die, men come home. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Mexico Stories: Part I


The Center of Mexico City, C. says, is magical. The buildings lean heavily, as if on diabetic swollen legs, as if they might straighten out, but just now are needing to catch their breath. At night, the tunnels of sidewalks seem furbished with funny mirrors, walls jut out here and there at unexpected angles and the burdened bellies of structures expand voluptuously into sidewalk space. Much trash on the dark streets, the residue of day-time markets. Alleys lead to yellow bulbs illuminating crowded courtyards with plastic saints, which many families share amongst themselves; tenements. Unexpectedly, there are ruins, too, inserting themselves into the modern city with a stubbornness that, though worn, is indefatigable. And the Mexicans, they know, they fly kites by the thousands in the Zocalo, push the bright plastic into the sky and tether themselves to reality only by the thinnest strings.


Commerce is segregated and specialized by product. Perhaps it is because Mexico City is so large, its offerings so vast, that stores and markets and shopping streets are grouped by product; Flower Market, Party Decorations Street, Shoe Street, Witches’ Supply Market, Cake Store. As if to make it easier. The effect is overwhelming. Store after store, market-stand after market-stand, offering the same product or various iterations of it. The shoes did not impress much. But a warehouse full of flowers, truck beds loaded up with rosemary ten feet high, gladiolus blooms by the thousands, may have. Outside of the flower market, dozens of men and women sat around in the courtyard weaving crosses out of palm fronds and laughing at each other’s’ jokes.

Something about C. makes me feel Mom-ish, makes me want to dole out warnings, admonitions, safety advice. Though I rarely feel danger imminent to my own self, the danger I feel for others – metaphysical, physical – hovers inside me like a cloud of insects, buzzing, incessantly on the move, the cloud growing and contracting, but mostly expanding outward steadily into a panic attack. C. intensifies this somehow. I said the highway was no way to ride, but I didn’t mind, other than on her behalf.                

A famous movie producer’s – from Mexico golden age of cinema – house in Cuernavaca. That name sounds cavernous, but the town is on crowded hills. The house is frozen in a remote time; torn tarps hang over the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out to the pool and into a jungle of palms, furniture sits in small semi-circles, arranged for multiple parties at once, photos of the patriarch. S. lives there now, one of the producer’s daughters. She’s had four loves, she told us over dinner. The first abandoned her for Canada during Mexico’s student strikes of 1968 and called collect to tell her he got another girl pregnant. The second was a man who died twice. Third was an archaeologist that left her to die in a small hut after she contracted Hepatitis C. The day she met the fourth she told him she wanted to have his baby. That baby’s paintings now hang in the producer’s house, but the baby-daddy was dismissed soon after her birth. If you’re anything like the first three, she told the fourth, I want nothing to do with you. S. did not let us do the dishes after dinner. After an operation on a brain tumor, she does dishes to strengthen her body and recover.         

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Letter to Wyoming

We are friends now, Wyoming, so I feel I can be honest. I thought you were a loser when we first met. You were lonely and vengeful with your wind, your plains like cold, empty bed sheets tucked into snow covered mountains, polka-dotted with ungulates and dead towns.
But then on that coldest day – do you remember? - we boiled water and threw it in the crisp air and it turned to snowflakes and I started to fall for you.
In the dead towns, I met cowboys with their throats wrapped in silk wild rags and on roads where you can drive fast I found steely skies that stretched out into impossible horizons. At the Hobo hot springs I met a man that looked like a Viking, and in the forest I prospected for gold in the glacial streams, and on a ranch I fished snakes out of a canal, and in the mountains I traced petroglyphs with my finger, and everywhere I watched trains trudge across landscapes in endless caravans, and I met people with faces open as the land, soft-spoken as the ready snow, with belt buckles big as the sky.
I ran my hands against your thick seems of coal in the Basin, too, and I have not forgotten your white outs that made it seem like the world was made of cold cotton candy. Also, I’m still not sure about these loud souped-up trucks, dear, and I remember Matthew Shepard and my landlord, who thought I had an attitude problem because she couldn’t pronounce my name. Sometimes, too, the loneliness and the starkness still reign.
This isn’t goodbye, Wyoming. This isn’t a proposition of any sort. I sunned yesterday on granite slabs in a field of blue columbines and now it is September, which means snow, and I feel alright about that. I thought I would let you know just that. That you’re alright, dear.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Caceres, Spain

Though the birds and their shrill song is present always here, they come out most fully when the sky starts to pinken and the heat gives in to a slight breeze, around 10. They emerge from the holes in the castles and walls, which at this hour are already glowing, and they circle in the sky madly, their sharp little wings like daggers and their vast numbers in the pale sky making it look like a fine fishing net is dancing in the wind above the plaza.

A man with a cane walks across the plaza and looks up at them. A lone crane flies from one roof to another and looks like a massive white airplane striking through the blackness of rapidly circling little swallows. Couples make out all over the place. A man packs a cigarette before lighting it on the steps below the clock. When it gets a little darker, the sky a deeper blue like the blue of tissue paper, and the birds fly close to the buildings, their shadows swoop along the walls as if on mirrors and it looks like there are even more of them than there are.