Rotenone and Paiute cutthroat recovery: The end of “endless appeals and lawsuits”

From High Country News (, a look at how some environmental groups used “endless appeals and lawsuits, all based on fiction,” to block efforts to save a native fish from a non-native predator.


When poisoning is the solution

By Ted Williams/Writers on the Range

One of the more spectacular success stories of the Endangered Species Act is playing out in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness of the Toiyabe-Humboldt National Forest, high in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Heroic and persevering managers of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service have prevailed in their 10-year legal battle to save America’s rarest trout — the federally threatened Paiute cutthroat. Its entire natural habitat consists of nine miles of Silver King Creek.

Cutthroat trout subspecies of the Interior West are being hybridized off the planet by rainbow trout from the Pacific Northwest, dumped into their habitat during the age of ecological illiteracy, which ended circa 1970.

In most cases, the only hope for the natives is rotenone, a short-lived, easily neutralized, organic poison rendered from tropical plants.

But a war on rotenone has been declared by chemophobic environmentalists, who refuse to learn about it, and by anglers who don’t care what’s on the other end of the rod so long as it’s bent. Although rotenone is essential to management as defined by the Wilderness Act, the group Wilderness Watch, for example, asserts that “poison has no place in wilderness.” And Peter Moyer, founder of the Orwellian-named Wild Trout Conservation Coalition, offers this mindless defense of cutthroat trout extinction: “I am a bit of a mongrel myself.”

State and federal fisheries managers are mandated by the Endangered Species Act to save the natives by poisoning the aliens. For years, however, this work has been impeded by individuals, publications and organizations that concoct and recycle horror stories about rotenone.  Apparently, they haven’t figured out that fish are wildlife, too.

The worst offenders have been Outdoor Life magazine, Range magazine, Real Fishing magazine, Friends of the Wild Swan, Beyond Pesticides, Defenders of Wildlife, two Sierra Club chapters, Wild Trout Conservation Coalition, Wilderness Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Rivers Council, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Friends of Silver King Creek, and the Western Environmental Law Center.

The last six of these organizations managed to derail Paiute cutthroat recovery for a full decade. They accomplished this with endless appeals and lawsuits, all based on fiction. Typical of the absurd statements about rotenone was this proclamation by the pro bono counsel for the litigants, the Western Environmental Law Center: “Unfortunately, the chemical does not just kill the fish in the water but the entire ecosystem, including turtles, snakes, frogs, birds, terrestrials, insects and other animals that live in or drink from the poisoned water.”

Rotenone used in fish recovery has never affected an ecosystem except to restore it. And it has never killed a turtle, snake, frog, bird or any terrestrial organism. Aquatic insects usually survive treatment, and the few that don’t are swiftly replaced by natural recruitment. In fact, insects frequently do better after treatment because they don’t have to contend with fish they didn’t evolve with.

Appellants and litigants claimed a “link” between rotenone and Parkinson’s disease, basing this untruth on an Emory University study in which concentrated rotenone was mainlined into rats’ jugular veins via implanted pumps. (Rotenone used in fisheries management is applied at less than 50 parts per billion.) At the end of a year and a half no rat had Parkinson’s disease. The researchers knew they couldn’t cause Parkinson’s and never intended to. They wanted to establish a “Parkinson’s-like condition” — i.e. tremors — in an animal model.

Appellants and litigants also claimed that rotenone threatened the rare mountain yellow-legged frog. But it was extirpated in the watershed sometime in the 20th century, probably by the very alien rainbow trout that had been extirpating Paiute cutthroats. Rotenone doesn’t affect adult frogs but can kill tadpoles, though it usually doesn’t. If frogs are present, managers delay treatment until tadpoles transform. Ironically, rotenone is being used elsewhere in the Sierras to recover yellow-legged frogs by killing the alien trout that are eating them.

With each successful appeal and lawsuit, rotenone opponents boasted that they had “saved” Silver King Creek. But last August they ran out of legal options, and the managers applied about two quarts of rotenone to the entire treatment area. In case a few hybrids survived, two more quarts will be applied next August. Then, pure Paiutes will be reintroduced.

This will be the first time humans have restored a threatened or endangered fish to 100 percent of its historic range. Maybe it’s a turning point in the war.


Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes for Fly Rod & Reel magazine. Read more on this issue at:


10 thoughts on “Rotenone and Paiute cutthroat recovery: The end of “endless appeals and lawsuits””

    • I, too, look forward to Kieran’s response. I hope he addresses the case Williams describes — the use of rotenone in Silver King Creek and elsewhere — rather than attacking Mr. Williams.

  1. If “poisoning” a waterway is the path to total destruction, we shan’t forget the derailment of the tank car of basimid soil fumigant into the Sacramento River above Shasta Reservoir years ago. It has to be chemically destroyed by oxygen. So the powers that be had big compressors on barges on the Reservoir pumping air into the lake where the Sacramento river enters it. The whole deal was a biological nuclear option. Total destruction. Bad deal. Or so it was thought at the time.

    All the small tributaries to the Sacramento held native aquatic life, which “trickles down” into the main river. Sunlight and above spill water quality remain the same, as does the tributary water. After oxygen and water flow had removed the chemical, and all the dead stuff had decomposed or run off into Shasta Lake, the trickle down was feeding the river. And in just a couple of years, the fishing and species compositions were the best they had been in ages. The alien and exotic in the main stream were gone, and their space now occupied by native species. There has been no advertised ongoing bad result of a tank car of soil fumigant spilled into the river. A “worst case” scenario is like a haircut, evidently, in that in time the result flows towards natural.

    In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the upper end of the Valley is a meeting of deflation plains from mountain streams and from Missoula floods of old. Flat and fine particles. Clay. Seemingly impervious to water, and holds water well. So grass seed farmers tile the land, and have specialized tools to create waterways in the fields for winter. Those little drain tiles and channels lead to larger channels constructed to be “grass waterways” that you can drive machinery through in summer when they are dry. And as such, the grass catches solids in runoff, slowing erosion. A farmer designed way to keep lands somewhat drained, and for that drainage to managed.

    As such, there was a research project to see what lived in those waters in winter, if anything, and to measure chemical runoff, the major purpose to see the impacts of pesticides and and measure their impacts in the runoff and life if there were any. It was a trek to find negatives, really. So it turns out that “grass waterways” are important high water refuges for native species. Natives use seasonal water as a place to hide and maintain position in the waterways during flood events. Introduced exotics don’t have the same behavioral responses. So when the researchers were bottling water and electroshocking, they found an amazing community of aquatic critters they would have thought to be in the larger streams at that time of year. All doing well. All native. And the chemistry of the water was not pesticide laden, either. It turns out the grass waterways, these seemingly sterile small streams running during and after storm events, are important as replacements for the “oxbows” and other meanders of streams now straightened or farmed to bank’s edge. Not intentional as to the outcome, but now recognized as valued and needed habitat. I might note that the same counties and farmers have been a part of the recovery and proposed delisting of the once ESA listed Oregon chub. And the other fish proposed to come off the list was the Modoc sucker, also on mostly private lands, in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

    This isn’t a defense of chemicals, but neither is it a blanket condemnation. Empirical data and goals have to use whatever means are realistic and available to preserve species in their habitats. Railroad safety is paramount. But there is a lesson for Paiute cutthroat trout habitat recovery in the Sacramento River train derailment result.

  2. It’s a sad state of affairs, as well as a poor reflection on our judicial system, the way various groups usually with rather extreme and/or self-serving agendas, often delay efforts to help preserve ‘genuinely threatened species’ in the U.S. Sadly and too often, such frivolous and delaying lawsuits, with Center for Biological Diversity seemingly leading the pack, are often paid for by taxpayer dollars, unbeknownst to most taxpayers…..i.e. the use and abuse of the Equal Access to Justice Act.

    • Denver:

      The EAJA cost to taxpayers doesn’t even register when compared to the costs taxpayers bear in covering for the vast unemployment, food stamps, medicaid, and county subsidies that result from many of these rulings. I like Jay Lininger, but the CBD has been revealed as a mostly motley crew of legal opportunists who have bent the ESA to their own advantage; and at a distinct disadvantage to those of us footing the bill and — in the long run — to the very species they unconvincingly claim to be “protecting.” What a racket, and what a disservice to those of us who actually do care about the environment and the species that live here.

      Has Kieran responded to Williams yet? I can wait, but I won’t be holding my breath. I am curious, though, what he will say this time — and I, too, hope it won’t just be another personal attack on Williams.

      • The object, DB, is not to recover species rapidly, if at all. Tis “better” for the litigants if the crisis continues on, better for the agency if there’s something to protect and people to continue to boss. Why else would the Endangered Species Act, once a species is listed, prohibit propagation to all but federally-controlled programs?
        The ESA is actually an impediment to recovery efforts, because those recoveries are supposed to be “natural” and natural only — evolution without man’s interference, ya know.

  3. By the way, I want to raise the issue of Aryanized fisheries, where only the natives are allowable. Somehow, I don’t hear much screaming about browns in Montana’s Smith River although these are the ultimate piscine Nazi invaders, being GERMAN brownus troutus, not even from the correct continent, for crying out loud.
    That said, I’m not sympathetic to bucket biology that blows out a good native fishery. But I’m not that into cutthroats, they are small and dumb. The goal should not necessarily be native fisheries above all, but good fisheries that are a good fit for the waters and interested sportspeople.

  4. I don’t want to turn this thread into an attack on the Center for Biological Diversity. I’m interested in the CBD’s motivations in this case, but also in the objection/appeals/litigation process in general. In this case, it has been 10 years since the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a recovery plan. Imagine for an EA on the effects of inaction for a decade! Anyhow, here are some links to more info:

    * The USFWS recovery plan.

    * A CBD press release from 2003.

    * An September 2013 LA Times article, “Poisoning a Sierra stream to save the world’s rarest trout.”

  5. It’s fairly easy to find quite a bit of information on rotenone effects on aquatic invertebrates and other stream biota, though not as easy to draw firm conclusions as Mr. Williams appears to think. Here’s one USFWS report on this project that is pretty interesting:

    Rotenone is botanical in origin (not necessarily significant, ricin is too) and has a low acute toxicity for mammals. Ecological effects and long-term human health effects are less well known. I think the Williams article overstates how much is known about rotenone, and trivializes legitimate concerns. He cites only an Emory University study as the source of concerns related to Parkinson’s disease, but neglects another major study (NIH) which is perhaps more significant, again easily found with google:

    Regardless of whether the rotenone approach is a good one here, Ted Williams contention that opposing viewpoints are “all based on fiction” is blatantly false, and he discredits himself. With friends like this….


Leave a Comment