Why Even The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Neglects The Fishes They Espouse To Revere

 “Basically, we’ve got way too many animals on too small an area for too long a time.  They’re way over the elk refuge’s carrying capacity.”  Barry Reiswig - Refuge Manager of the National Elk Refuge Jackson, Wyoming 1996 - 20071

Photo to the left - National Park Service photo.  All other photos by "The Don Quixote of Fish Biologists"

Why Even The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Neglects The Fishes They Espouse To Revere

I have a story, a factual one, which shows me just why we fishes are in so much trouble.  I’ll state up front that I know you people (Homo sapiens - “the wise ones”) don’t intend to harm us deliberately, but you and your well-intentioned organizations and institutions continue to do it. 

I’m sure this sounds trivial to most, but please hear me out because what I’m going to say is supported by two well-known ichthyologists, Peter Moyle and Joseph Cech, Jr.  Here’s what they wrote in Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology 2nd ed. over twenty-five years ago:  “Overall, it appears that many fishes do not have value to people for recreation or esthetics.” 

In my view - that is a gross understatement because even those of us that have value are left sucking hind tit, so to speak, compared to our terrestrial and avian counterparts…and as you’ll see, sometimes amphibians and reptiles. 

Case in point, thousands of fishermen annually flock to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to ply the waters of the Snake, Gros Ventre and Hoback rivers to catch the relatively unique and rare Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout.  

                                                                                                            

From an aesthetic standpoint, nature aficionados hold them in high esteem for their sheer beauty with that distinct blood-red cutthroat slash on the underside of the lower jaw and amber hued flanks.  They are a splendid sight when photographed in their natural habitat by someone as talented as Fish Eye Guy Photography or sketched on a canvas by such talented ichtyo-artists as Joseph Tomelleri.   

Unfortunately, as you’ll see, most humans inherently value warm-blooded fauna simply because they can relate to them better.  Be honest with yourselves, you’d be more inclined to do the “humane” thing by calling a game warden to dispatch a wounded deer or bald eagle writhing in agony on the side of the road than thump a fish hanging on a stringer or flopping on the grass gasping for oxygen (you wouldn’t even realize he’s gasping would you?).   

Some Sort Of Willful Ignorance Maybe?

To prove my point I’ll divulge how the premier wildlife agency does what so many individuals tend to do, and that is flat-out favor terrestrial organisms over us aquatic types.  I’ll be using the National Elk Refuge as my poster-child example because, at that place, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service blatantly neglects the cutthroat trout and other riparian dependent species.  Granted, the elk are why the refuge was originally created back in 1912 (an act of Congress stated: “For the establishment of a winter game (elk) reserve in the State of Wyoming…”).  And granted, other than those famous mountains (i.e., Tetons) to the west of the refuge that resembled breasts to the early concupiscent* French trappers, elk are undeniably Jackson Hole’s foremost icon. 

                                                                                                                                  

Les trois tétons

                                                                                                                  

Elk statues greet visitors at the entrance to the National Wildlife Art Museum on the outskirts of Jackson

Here’s what my relatives, the cutthroat trout are up against: right from the get-go they have two strikes against them because they’re cold-blooded and slimy.  You humans intrinsically cherish those warm-blooded elk partly because they sport lovable eyelashes and are warm and fuzzy.  Here’s a double whammy - us fishes not only lack eyelashes…we don’t even have eyelids!  But what we lack in eyelashes and eyelids, we make up for with eyeballs.  Why even bring that up?  Humans are irresistibly drawn to babies of all terrestrial species, with their inquisitive eyes that radiate helplessness and total trust.  Well, cutthroat infants are born with eyes one-third the size of their heads – I would think that you’d find that totally adorable…but you don’t.

Now we’re talking the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) for crying out loud, not the U.S. Elk Service.  Those “charismatic mega fauna” have reigned supreme for far too long on the refuge, a nearly 25,000-acre tract of land surrounded by Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and private lands.  In regard to the dubious management, the elk are making the cutthroat’s life more difficult than it needs to be.

Flat Creek, a regionally renowned spring creek, courses through the National Elk Refuge (NER) for over ten miles.  As you’ll see, the FWS allows the elk to browse the living daylights out of the riparian habitat for most of its length.  In most places they actually totally denude the willows.  As is noted later on, streamside woody vegetation provides necessary cover adding to “habitat complexity”, which increases a stream’s productivity potential.

                                                                                        

Flat Creek on the refuge.  Note the lack of riparian vegetation, particularly willows.

What we fishes find rather ironic about that is that the FWS is the first agency to crack down on ranchers (and federal land management agencies) of the Pacific Northwest through the Section 7 consultation process if their cattle overgraze federally managed streams that harbor endangered or threatened salmon, steelhead or bull trout.  This text is straight from the recently released FWS Recovery Plan for bull trout: “Livestock grazing has occurred in the South Fork Boise River drainage for more than 100 years at a variety of grazing intensities and has had negative effects on aquatic resources (i.e., through reduced riparian vegetation, and increases in sedimentation, stream bank instability, water temperatures).2

The Boise River is in Idaho, but since bull trout have been extirpated from 60% of their historic range, Oregon is not exempt from the Fish & Wildlife Service’s wrath in regards to improper livestock grazing practices.  The recovery plan states:  “Historical land uses affecting bull trout habitat in the Malheur Basin include livestock grazing, timber harvest, road building, dispersed recreation, and irrigated agriculture.”2

So here we have the FWS getting rather surly when threatened and endangered species are involved, yet they’ll allow “their” beloved elk to over-browse the riparian vegetation along a stream that harbors a fish of lesser notoriety.  Is this not a classic example of a double standard or willful ignorance…or both? 

On top of that, the refuge also takes water out of Flat Creek for irrigation to grow grass for the elk.  Their own environmental impact statement (EIS) written to assess the impacts from various management strategies states, “Water diversions from July through September, however, can involve substantial proportions of stream flow, when water levels are normally low and evaporation and transpiration rates are highest. In some cases this causes sections of streams below outtakes to go dry, putting stress on organisms dependent on water flow and wet or moist soils.”3

In Where Elk Roam, the author and wildlife biologist, Bruce Smith, describes how he questioned the favoring of, “a few chosen species over greater biological diversity” at a N. Dakota national wildlife refuge.  He then goes on to note how the same thing was occurring on the NER where he worked.  In his words, “I couldn’t escape the irony of this professional dilemma.  At the NER, the equivalent management bias played out where it was acceptable to eliminate aspen and other woody communities for the benefit of elk and bison.4   

I don't’ want to be too harsh on you humans, after all you did name yourselves “the wise ones”, but willful ignorance abounds at every level from individuals to institutions.  Therein lies a big part of why, of all the species on this planet, aquatics like us fishes are in such dire straights; you humans don’t do what’s right for us until you’re forced into it!  Then it’s often too little too late.

I personally wouldn’t be aware of this gross negligence of a comrade native to Jackson Hole had it not been for my fish biologist friend who experienced this blatant disregard first hand; for he worked at the Jackson National Fish Hatchery located within the National Elk Refuge some fifteen years ago. 

                                                                                         

The view out the front window of my friend’s house overlooking the National Elk Refuge and the town of Jackson, Wyoming.

                                                                           

The view out the kitchen window of my friend’s house looking beyond the National Elk Refuge at the biggest of the three breasts or The Grand Teton. 

This is the guy that some of his Fish & Wildlife Service colleagues refer to as “The Don Quixote of Fish Biologists” (from here out I’ll call him DQ for short).  However, prior to becoming a fish biologist, he, himself, didn’t really comprehend the shenanigans that were transpiring in front of his very eyes…at least not until it was pointed out to him more than once by a redneck, conservative cowboy from Pinedale!  That’s why, from time to time, I must constantly remind him that he’s not much different than the rest of you ignoramuses.  Please excuse me if, from time to time, I seem to be too harsh on you humans…but this stuff is important to me.   

Here’s The Visual Proof

These photos showing degraded riparian and stream habitat were taken about eighteen years ago, but conditions haven’t changed much since then.   Subsequently, it’s not surprising that remote sensing equipment indicates that canopy coverage of willows and cottonwoods over a fifty year period declined from anywhere between 59 and 91 percent!5

                                                                                              

Willows are nonexistent throughout the 10-mile stretch of Flat Creek on the refuge. (Note the man-made structures necessary to provide cover for the cutthroat trout)

                                                                                       

Man-made rock funnel intended to restrict the flow to the center of the channel.  Over time, if allowed, willow encroachment would do the same thing…naturally.

                                                                                                  

A verdant willow stand within an area that excludes elk at the outlet channel of the Jackson National Fish Hatchery.  This stand started from a few willow sprigs jabbed in the bank of a newly constructed spawning channel in 1998 by none other than my biologist friend, DQ (a.k.a. The Don Quixote of Fish Biologists)  

What you should find interesting, but I find extremely frustrating, is the quote at the beginning of this article.  To put it in context, it’s written by a previous Refuge Manager who was in charge of that refuge, “Basically, we’ve got way too many animals on too small an area for too long a time.  They’re way over the elk refuge’s carrying capacity.1

Here’s something I find exceedingly interesting, if not downright inexplicable; Defenders of Wildlife is suing the refuge to do the right thing.  But wait - do you know who is leading the charge for Defenders?  None other than Jamie Rappaport Clark; she’s the past Director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (that’s the top dog in Washington DC!).   How crazy is that?  

                                                                                                             

As noted above, this same situation wouldn’t fly in Oregon or Idaho if it affected threatened bull trout or endangered salmon habitat.   Why?  Because it’s the law.  But sadly, a past refuge biologist, one who has studied the elk for twenty-two years, had this to say of the impaired riparian conditions along the stream that harbors native Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout, “Within the degraded cottonwood corridor of Flat Creek, the damage to both plants and stream banks rivaled any overstocked rangeland I'd seen in the West.”4

There have been several books published on the dubious management of the National Elk Refuge, two of which have been written, at least in part, by that biologist, Bruce Smith.  In Imperfect Pasture, he and his co-authors state, “Willows still sporadically grow along the banks of irrigation ditches in this area, only to be browsed near ground level by the elk herd each winter.5

But if the FWS knows there’s a problem, why won’t they fix it?  Or can’t they fix it? The simple answer is politics as seen in the documentary Feeding The Problem.  The unnaturally high level of elk is overlooked for several reasons: people make a ton of money off them (e.g., hunting guides, hotel/motel owners, etc.), those who hunt them obviously would like to see more, and who doesn’t like to see the abundant critters on the outskirts of Jackson scattered about with the Sleeping Indian mountain off in the distance as one drives by.  With the potential - and likely onset - of chronic wasting disease, those supporting more elk may sadly realize some day that they only mollycoddled their beloved elk to death.

In defense of the wildlife biologists managing - or mismanaging - the National Elk Refuge, the local biologists have been trying to work through the system to rectify the problem.  The ultimate decisions are made at the higher levels, while intense pressure to inflate numbers is coming from wildlife biologists working for the state.  However, that still doesn’t excuse DQ’s wildlife counterparts from often:

Downright Disregard For The Cutthroat Trout And Other Fishes

I hope that you’re following my drift here - and that is that no matter whether it’s at the individual level or on up to any number of you folks, you humans tend to overlook us because we are out of sight and therefor out of mind…among other things.  

It’s one thing to neglect my fellow fishes by degrading their habitat; it’s another to just downright discount their presence…and that’s what the Fish & Wildlife Service does all too often – particularly in the refuge system.  Let’s take a closer look at that environmental impact statement mentioned earlier that noted how water withdrawals would dry up certain sections of streams.  Its official title is Final Bison and Elk Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement.

I know that you’d think I’m pulling your leg if I said that cutthroat trout were only casually mentioned once while the yellow-billed cuckoo had several pages dedicated to it.  I honestly don’t mean to be flippant about a fellow fauna, but I seriously doubt that anyone in Jackson Hole - other than an ardent birder - has knowingly seen one of those cuckoos! 

Here’s the entire extent of the discussion on fishes in the 600+page document:

Fish — The fish community in Jackson Hole is typical of cold waters. Eighteen species are present, including mountain whitefish, cutthroat trout (the only native trout in the area), five introduced trout species, redside shiner, and several species of chub, dace, and sucker. Bison and elk can potentially affect fish habitat by reducing water quality, eroding streambanks, and suffocating spawning beds. Heavy browsing of riparian vegetation by elk and bison may raise water temperatures by removing shady vegetation. However, most fish populations in the Jackson Hole area are doing well, and these effects are relatively minor or nonexistent. Therefore, fish are not further discussed.7

It would be tough to argue that any of the fish populations in and around Jackson Hole are trending downwards in abundance, but to say that current impacts are relatively minor or nonexistent is inappropriate in my opinion.  Flat Creek’s fish habitat throughout the refuge has been highly impacted not only from the excessive elk grazing, but also by the large input of silt laden water from the Gros Ventre River annually flushed into Flat Creek via a large irrigation ditch; the water eventually being used to irrigate land downstream of the refuge.  Additionally, reed canary grass - and invasive plant that has the potential to reduce spawning habitat - is known to occur along the stream’s edge (it’s a mounting concern in Alaska where it’s known to have recently invaded salmon streams like the Kenai River.

                                                                                                                           

The photo on the left shows substantial silt deposition in Flat Creek immediately downstream from where the Gros Ventre Ditch enters Flat Creek.  The photo on the right shows clean substrates in Flat Creek immediately upstream of that confluence. 

These impaired conditions are such that the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, Jackson Hole Trout Unlimited, the National Elk Refuge and other organizations have felt the need to enhance the habitat to reduce the sediment inputs and improve stream processes.  As noted above, willow encroachment adjacent to the channel would, at a minimum, improve the stream’s ability to flush sediment through the refuge; therefore, from an ecosystem perspective, grazing impacts on fish habitat should have been discussed in the EIS.     

As you can see from the following photograph of the Contents section, however, reptiles and amphibians were not only mentioned more, but also had sections devoted to them.

                                                                                                    

However, DQ did his best to heighten the awareness of the importance of the cutthroat trout to his fellow employees at the refuge.  Shortly after the grand opening of the newly constructed headquarters office for the National Elk Refuge, he gave a presentation to the staff titled Native Fishes of N. America - What’s All The Fuss?.  During that, he pointed out the plethora of exquisite wildlife art adorning the walls (e.g., mountain lions, bighorn sheep and of course wapiti), but noted how there not only was a paucity of piscean pictorials…there was not a single one!  So, to emphasize his point, he pulled from a paper bag a personal print of a Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout that eventually did adorn one of the walls.   

His intent was to leave the print shown below on the wall until the time came when he transferred to another location.  DQ naively hoped that upon his departure, that it would be replaced with something similar.  And it was, but not by the office staff; the hatchery manager provided a cutthroat trout figurine that symbolized the importance of that native fish species in the stream that courses through the refuge.  But alas, that statuette no longer adorns the refuge office. 

                                                                                               

But that didn’t really surprise him all that much, for he’s had my concerns reinforced time and time again.   

Our biologist then moved to Alaska where he became the first permanent fish biologist to ever work out of the headquarters of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Bethel, Alaska; a refuge with a similar history to the National Elk Refuge in that it was created specifically to protect a certain group of species, in this case waterfowl.  Much to his dismay, it was a déjà vu to what he experienced in Wyoming.    

Shortly after his arrival in “The Last Frontier”, he felt the same need to present his strong prejudice toward us fishes.  First he gave his spiel to the local refuge staff, and then sneakily slipped it in at a regional biologist workshop where the majority of Alaska FWS bios were in attendance; the vast majority of which were wildlife and not fisheries biologists.  At that time, there were only four fish biologists stationed on a national wildlife refuge in the state.  

He pointed out to his new Alaska colleagues how the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2000 pulled the same stunt with one of their job announcements.  To make his point, he featured this excerpt from that announcement on one of his Power Point slides:    

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge needs an open minded, fun loving Deputy Refuge Manager GS-485-13, who believes in their heart that the earth abides thru dedicated and responsible land stewardship. The deputy manager plans, directs, supervises and has decision-making authority for day-to-day administration of all Refuge operations including wildlife inventory, recreation and public use management, wilderness, stewardship, law enforcement, administration, and oil/gas development issues.

This world-class natural area hosts the calving grounds and a major portion of the winter range of one of North America's largest barren-ground caribou herds, in addition to a wide variety of arctic-adapted species such as muskox, polar bear, barren ground grizzly bears, wolf, wolverine, Arctic fox, and Collared lemming. More than 180 bird species have been recorded in the Refuge, which serves as a critical breeding area for a diversity of migratory birds and as staging grounds for the largest concentration of snow geese in Alaska. The lagoons, rivers and lakes harbor 36 species of fish.

No specific mention of the Arctic grayling and Dolly Varden, two of the more glamorous species that call those waters home.  But wait - the mighty Chinook or king salmon also resides there; surely, they’re every bit as noteworthy as a Collared lemming (that’s my tongue in cheek or tongue in operculum sense of humor)!  I’d contend that if king salmon aren’t considered a world-class resource…nothing is!

And you wonder why my name is Cyprinid Cynicalis?  Some of you may be thinking that I’m being too anal retentive about all this, if so, please comment on my Facebook page…or at least give DQ some moral support in his efforts to help us fishes.

Is this just a one-time rant about my kind and other aquatic fauna?  I hope not.  I’ve often asked, “What’s it going to take to get the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to do the right thing for us fishes?

After much thought and research into human psychology, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two ways to force you to make the needed changes: 1) is through litigation, and that is exactly what the Defenders of Wildlife is doing (but that takes time and is very expensive) and 2) public embarrassment of the Fish & Wildlife Service, something I’m trying to do in this blog.

What comes to mind is a video I saw about the way that United Airlines treated a customer after they broke his guitar titled United Breaks Guitars.  It was only after many thousands of views did United offer to make things right!  

And that’s why I, Cyprinid Cynicals, will continue to take a critical and irreverent look at the human race in these postings.  Hoping that eventually I’ll publically humiliate you enough to start doing the right thing for my fellow fishes and the environment. 

Now here are couple of things that DQ, one who often asks the big picture questions, often ponders:

Why does even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service neglect the fishes they espouse to protect? 

Answering this question helps explain why of all the organisms on this planet, aquatic species are fairing the worst in this so-called era of environmental awareness.

But, understanding the answer to that question only raises the ultimate question: are Homo sapiens capable of sustaining biological diversity, which includes the human race, for much longer?

And, if not, those who feel for the fishes, other imperiled fauna and mankind must find ways to cope with that reality!

***************

In Imperfect Pasture while boreal toads, boreal chorus frogs, Columbian spotted frogs, and tiger salamanders were mentioned by name, fish were mentioned in only a few instances and only casually - and nowhere was the Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout mentioned.  In regard to the search for photographic documentation of historic conditions of the vegetation, the Preface had this to say, “Although we viewed hundreds of photographs in archives and private collections, precious few were taken of refuge lands.  Fewer still clearly depicted plant communities.  We learned that these early photographs captured on film what interested them, not necessarily what interested us.  People and pets, horses and homes, farmscapes and mountainscapes, stringers of fish and pelts of furbearers…….” 8

At least some old timers were interested in the fish of Flat Creek!

However, the authors’ mention of my finned friends in their writings is noticeably scant, at least when read by fish biologists…particularly the anal retentive ones.

They do allude to the ecological impacts to the streams and riparian vegetation near the final page: “Likewise, streamside woody vegetation is widely recognized as an important component of fisheries habitats.  Overhanging shrubs and trees provide streambank stability and shade, reduce soil erosion, regulate stream temperatures, and provide food and protection for trout and other salmonids.  Platts and Wesche found that streams bordered by shrubs had higher standing crops of fish than similar sized streams with other types of vegetation borders.”8  Does that mean that the Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout population would benefit from proper management?  I think so, but what do I know…I’m only a fish! 

I hope it doesn’t appear that I’m picking on or singling out Bruce Smith, the retired National Elk Refuge’s wildlife biologist.  He’s truly a dedicated professional who I personally know and respect; his passion for wildlife exceeds most in his field as demonstrated by his receiving the prestigious Craighead Wildlife Conservation Award.  And I’m guessing that part of the reason for receiving that award was his tireless efforts to shed light on the consequences of too many elk on the refuge (i.e., past, present, and potentially devastating).   

I do hope that now he’s retired, he might be able to find the time to fish around his home in Southwestern Montana and appreciate the introduced fishes that flourish there now (e.g., rainbows and browns) and what was once naturally occurring (i.e., Arctic grayling and westslope cutthroat trout).  I say that because the native salmonids in the Madison River drainage, unlike on the National Elk Refuge, are not doing all that well.  Fortunately, through efforts by Montana’s fish biologists and others, Arctic grayling are making a comeback in the Ruby River while there are efforts to re-establish the westslope cutthroat trout in other local waters.  Maybe Bruce, with all his management expertise with controversial matters and dealings with a myriad of stakeholders having disparate values, can help in that regard.

References or Items of Interest (to me anyway…and remember, I’m just a fish)

* I’m not a lexiphanic, it’s just that we fishes don’t have near the abundance of catchy words that you humans do; and I thought that this one - concupiscent - had an interesting ring to it especially when talking about a pile of rocks that reminds some of you of breasts. 

  1. Suit Opposes Elk Feeding in Wyoming.   The New York Times
  2. Bull Trout Recovery Plan. 2015. Chapter 18.  Page 17
  3. Final Bison and Elk Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement. 2007. Chapter 4A - Environmental Consequences.  Page 198
  4. Where Elk Roam.  2012. Bruce Smith.  Page 189
  5. Where Elk Roam. 2012. Bruce Smith.  Page 190
  6. Where Elk Roam. 2012. Bruce Smith.  Page 190
  7. Imperfect Pasture. 2004. Bruce Smith, Eric Cole & David Dobkin. Page 45
  8. Final Bison and Elk Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement. 2007. Chapter 3 - Affected Environment. Page 94
  9. Imperfect Pasture. 2004.Bruce Smith, Eric Cole & David Dobkin. Page xii 
  10. Imperfect Pasture. 2004.Bruce Smith, Eric Cole & David Dobkin. Page 131

I’d like to sincerely thank Dr. Bruce Smith for his indispensable comments that helped me tone down my fish bias just a little (not an easy task for a fish when conversing with humans!).  He also recommended I substantiate my assertions better, which I’m sure you, the reader, have appreciated!

I'd like to thank Kerry Grande, retired Jackson National Fish Hatchery manager, who not only provided comments to my draft but proudly carried the fish torch; it was he who provided the cutthroat trout ceramic statuette that replaced my print upon my departure from the JNFH.

I’d also like to thank Dr. James Rose, a personal friend of “The Don Quixote of Fish Biologists” from their days at the University of Wyoming and an avid fisherman who took the time to share some quality time with DQ in Alaska this past summer and review my draft. 

Lastly, DQ’s cousin Donald Cannon never refuses to review and provide superb edits to either one of my posts or the myriad of DQ’s rambling and scattered drafts.