Play THE GREEN TRUMP CARD, (So we can skip the Rat Poison)

While we still have Donald Trump as president, environmentalists capable of thinking out-of-the-box (i.e. conservative environmentalists) might want to use the opportunity his administration provides to right some of the eco-wrongs perpetrated by the far left.

(To get a better idea (and a view of) what “eco-wrong” is being addressed in this blog post, you might want to scroll down and preview the photo gallery further on in the text.)

Citing Donald Trump as a right-er of eco-wrongs probably has some of you thinking, “Wait a minute, Trump is an enemy of the environment, not a friend.” Offered as a basis for that charge, a number of energy policies Trump has proposed and is working to apply — fossil fuel production and use, among others — have been cited to label him as a maximum climate change denier (and creator). Add to that the fact that Trump has reduced the amount of protection for wildlands (i.e., the Bears Ears in Utah), and endangered species in general — and you have what some would describe as sufficient reason to cite any effort to label Donald Trump “a friend of the environment” as an exercise in absurdity.

That brings us back to how Trump is truly adept at proving that leftist “solutions” don’t work by creating conservative alternatives that do work?

For one thing, it’s no news to most of us that, in the economy administered by Trump who continues to be called a racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, homophobe, etc., the employment of African-Americans has risen to the highest level in history, and for Hispanic-Americans, Asians and working women, to the highest in half a century. In other words, the diverse among us have fared far better, economically and otherwise, under Trump — a conservative who is supposed to be their disparager and exploiter — than under liberals who persist in trying to sell themselves as the sole friends and advocates of any and all of the above.

What does this have to do with the environment? In the contemporary American West (including Arizona, where I live) leftists sell themselves as “protectors” of nature who must be given authority to apply their “solutions” by being elected to office, employed by government agencies, or funded via “not for” profit NGO’s. The problem with this is, the success of these “solutions” is more often judged in terms of power gained via electoral outcomes and income gained via contributions, than results achieved via ecology.

Here’s the example that woke me to this: In the 1990s a couple of environmental groups threatened to sue the US Forest Service to remove livestock (cattle) grazing from pubic land along upper stretches of the Verde River in Arizona to reduce impacts considered detrimental to threatened and endangered species including a 3 inch minnow named the spikedace.

Instead of arguing the suit, the U. S. Forest Service acceded to the groups’ demands out of court and completed cattle removal by 1997.

Notably, while this policy was being applied, U. S. Department of Agriculture scientists observed that a large increase in trees and willows began to crowd the riverbanks transforming the stream from wide, shallow, gravelly, and warm (ideal habitat for spikedace and other warm-water natives) to narrow, deep, tree-shaded, mud-bottomed, and cool, which is ideal for non-native predatory fish such as flathead catfish and smallmouth bass. Then the non-native predators (the big fish) ate the little fish, including the spikedace and the young of other natives as well.

As government scientists watched this unfold, the realization began to arise that the removal of cattle was making the Upper Verde less hospitable, even hazardous, to its natives. Based on this, the scientists hypothesized that grazing might have actually been sustaining some habitat characteristics that were vitally important to the spikedace and other warm water natives. They then took the logical step of proposing research into the matter.

This was not well received by some within the Forest Service who moved to torpedo the study by submitting an unsolicited and highly critical review of the research proposal to management higher-ups. Pressure was thus put on the scientists proposing the grazing/native fish interaction research to back off.

Thickening this intrigue, it was later noted that among those who opposed researching a possible beneficial grazing/native fish interaction was one also serving as a board member and officer of an environmental organization with a stated policy advocating the removal of all grazing from public lands.

As one of the scientists who described the detrimental impacts of grazing removal put it: “an anti-grazing agenda is currently being vigorously promoted by some employees of the Forest Service (USFS) and the Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS) within their respective agencies.” where, “personal opinion has been transformed into a philosophical, socio-political, anti-grazing agenda that requires neither factual accuracy nor scientific research for its justification or support.”

The removal of livestock thus continued and to everyone’s surprise (including several ranchers), it became apparent that spikedace were being removed as well. In fact, the 3” minnow’s numbers dropped from 428 in 1994, 72 in 1995, and 140 in 1996, to 0 in 1997, when grazing removal was complete, and stayed there. While this was happening, the number of other native fishes on this stretch of the Verde began to drop as well, after what was alleged to be the major threat to them—grazing—was removed. (from 80% native/20% nonnative to the opposite of that).

What may be most surprising (and most eye-opening) about this chain of events, however, is that, 22 years later (11/2019), the spikedace count along the still-protected Upper Verde remains at zero, and the people and groups that fought and worked so hard to remove grazing from along the Verde to save the natives, have not expressed one word of regret or accountability.

Making this lack of an “Oops” even more significant is the fact that, on the Gila River in New Mexico, federal and state agencies have taken a different tack with very different results. In a report dated 02/23/2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that it had not removed grazing from along a certain section of the Gila because the land through which that section flowed was being managed in such an ecologically effective manner by the ranches which bordered it (including one in particular — the U Bar) that the agency felt removing that management would have been detrimental to the fish of interest.

How native fish-friendly was that management? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated “Portions of the Gila River and Mangas Creek in New Mexico (which continue to be grazed) support the largest numbers of spikedace in their range.”

In light of that. it makes sense to ask: Has this revelation increased any inclination to hold the environmental groups that caused the removal of grazing from along the Verde accountable for extirpating the spikedace? Or has it created any pressure to return grazing to the Verde to perhaps restore its habitat to the condition it was in when it was spikedace and other native fish friendly?

Actually, the opposite is the case. As I was checking the information on the Gila, I learned that one of the groups that sued to have cattle removed from the Verde has filed an intent to sue to remove grazing from along the spikedace-friendly section of that river, too. I have a pretty good idea what that would mean for the threatened and endangered species that inhabit the grazed habitat along that southwestern river, but this avalanche of absurdity doesn’t stop there.

In the meantime, a strategy has been proposed, and is being considered, to enable the government to return spikedace to the Verde that may be the most amazing aspect of this amazing story. It certainly had that effect on me.

This strategy includes constructing a fish-blocking barrier which would separate the no-grazing part of the Verde into sections. On one section, the non-native predators would remain and continue to consume the natives. On the other section, a chemical (rotenone — broadly known as a rodent (rat) poison and piscicide – fish poison ) would be added to the river in order to kill all fish, including all predatory non-natives. That section of the river would then be restocked with spikedace and other natives, who would, assumedly, no longer be endangered by introduced predators, now dead.

A number of things need to be noted here.

First: The habitat change that followed the removal of grazing — the increase in trees and willows that transformed the stream from wide, shallow, gravelly, and warm (ideal habitat for Spikedace and other warm-water natives) to narrow, deep, tree-shaded, mud-bottomed, and cool — would still be the case.

In other words, this section of the river would still be foreign to spikedace and other natives and home-sweet-home to any non-native predators that might venture there. This gives rise to the question: How long before this section of the river was re-invaded by predators and had to be rat poisoned again?

Add to this a couple of additional facts: Any native spikedace and other native fish that had managed to survive the habitat change would be killed by the rat poison (a violation of the Endangered Species Act). Plus, the spikedace that would be reintroduced into the river would not be native Verde River spikedace. They would be natives of some other habitat, so this wouldn’t be a true reintroduction.

What would it be? Good question!

One thing I am sure of: Pouring rat poison into a river would be problematic for plenty of creatures besides non-native predatory fish. For instance, how about us? A search (via the web) reveals that rotenone is described as both hazardous and not-so-hazardous to humans. Ancient humans, purportedly, used a natural version of it to kill fish, which they then ate without notable harm. However, effects of “acute exposure” to this chemical listed on a variety of websites include vomiting, incoordination, muscle tremors, and clonic convulsions, plus tachycardia, hypotension, and impaired myocardial contractility. Most notable, however, is the substance’s connection to Parkinson’s Disease…

“February 2011 – The National Institute of Health (NIH) Farming and Movement Evaluation (FAME) study found that individuals exposed to Paraquat (or a similar herbicide – rotenone) were roughly two and a half times more likely to develop Parkinson’s Disease..

There are, of course, those who deny this connection and contend it makes perfectly good sense to pour rat poison into a river to kill the fish you don’t like. Some also point to the fact that the tactic was applied in a tributary of the Verde a few years ago and seems to have achieved its fishy goals.

In light of all the above, what would you choose?

— To return the human/cattle version of the predator/prey relationship to the Verde in hopes of recreating the interaction that sustained functional spikedace habitat for as long as records and studies show — a relationship that still sustains, where it persists, “the largest numbers of spikedace in their range.”

Or to pour rat poison into one of Arizona’ main rivers?

With this in mind I asked one of the scientists who remains involved and interested in the Verde: If the habitat was restored to what it was before cattle were removed, (by returning the cows in the same numbers and manner they were there before), is it possible that enough native spikedace have possibly survived that they might reinhabit the river and return to sustainable numbers again? Probably not, he said, but reintroduced spikedace would do well, and non-native predators wouldn’t, if the river were restored in this way.

I also asked the rancher whose cattle once grazed this section of the Verde if he thought returning his animals would restore the river to a condition friendly to its natives, he said the riparian area had been changed so much that this probably wasn’t possible. As he said that, however, I couldn’t help but think of other extremely damaged areas I’ve been involved with that were returned to ecosystem function by restorative grazing (Check some of the other posts on this blog.)… Plus, my mind kept flashing images of the few sections of the Verde that continued to be grazed and continued to look like spikedace heaven.

Ironically, those images enable the readers of this post to actually perform a study suggested by scientists involved in this issue…

Here’s how and why…
One of the scientists who first observed that cattle removal was changing the Upper Verde from habitat for spikedace and other warm-water natives (wide, shallow, gravelly, and warm) to habitat for non-native predators (narrow, deep, tree-shaded, mud-bottomed, and cool) noted in a 1999 document that “there is no documentation by any scientific research establishing livestock grazing as a threat to southwestern native fishes.” Based on that he stated that — “Further studies are needed” and in a 2006 document recommended that “controlled experiments could be conducted where… reaches of the Upper Verde could be selectively grazed, and the fish communities of grazed and nongrazed reaches could then be compared.”

Ironically, one year before this latter document was published (probably while it was being written) and about 7 years after cows were removed (2005) I was photographing stretches of the Upper Verde that could qualify as an actual application of this study. Those photographs enable you, the reader of this post, to conduct that study and compare grazed and nongrazed reaches of the river. Note that, although the fish communities of these reaches couldn’t be compared (the spikedace were already gone), the comparison of those grazed and ungrazed areas with the description of spikedace/native fish habitat versus non-native predatory fish habitat can be made.

Ironically, one year before this latter document was published (probably while it was being written and about 7 years after cows were removed – 2005), I began photographing nongrazed stretches of the Upper Verde that illustrated the impacts of livestock removal. In addition, I’ve continued taking photos of an area of the river which was and has continued to be grazed. Comparing those photos, some of which were taken within a few days of one another, make it possible for us (me and you – the reader of this post) to actually conduct the study described above. In oither words, they enable us to compare grazed and nongrazed reaches of the river to determine which conform best with the description of spikedace/native fish habitat versus non-native predatory fish habitat. They also enable us to see which management — grazed or nongrazed — yields what we might describe as healthy versus unheatlhy riparian ecosystems. Obviously, these photos don’t make it possible to compare the fish communities of these reaches (the spikedace and most other natives were already gone anyway); however, the photos do provide an opportunity to decide which type of management is the best bet for enabling the “Return of the Natives.”

Here are the photos in a time sequence with captions. Place your bet:

My bet is that what is revealed here is an ideal opportunity to apply a collaborative solution to the Verde River and the return of its natives. Thinking back on his success with the diverse among us, the most effective collaborative solution producer I know of at present is Donald Trump. So, If President Trump could be inspired (or convinced) to apply his proficiency at actually achieving goals to which the left merely touts itself as the means by working with the ranchers, their cows, and environmentalists on the Verde — I’d be willing to bet that, in fairly short order, we would be discussing “the largest number of spikedace in the Verde at least since the year cattle removal was complete.” (Zero, after all, is not a hard number to beat.) Before too long we might even be discussing, in true Trump style, “the largest number ever.”

Then we would have some real evidence as to who the true environmentalists really are.

(And we could skip the rat poison!)

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