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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

GIVING HUMANS THE BIRD

I have a horrible feeling that somehow we’ve gotten this whole endangered species thing backward. Yes, we continue to carelessly destroy habitats, introduce alien species, and randomly dump industrial waste, and that’s all bad and we should stop it. But I’ve been eating dolphin safe tuna for almost forty years now and the darn dolphins are still not safe. I thought these guys were supposed to be so smart! Meanwhile, nobody is trying to protect the Northern Pike of Lake Davis, California: Quite the opposite.
Some idiot released a couple of Esox Lucius Linaeus – Northern Pike - into the small and now very un-placid Lake Davis back in 1991 because they thought Pike would be fun to catch. Unfortunately the lake already had a stocked population of game fish, Onocorhynchus clarki – Rainbow Trout - which are not only a popular game fish amongst tourists but are also an easy meal for the voracious Northern Pike.
To the California Fish and Game Department the worry was that once these piscatorial carnivores had finished off the Trout they would swim downstream on the Feather River, into the Sacramento and then upstream to devour the Delta Salmon fry populations, which Fish and Game had just spent tens of millions of dollars re-introducing. So, since 1997 the California Fish and Game Department has spent something in excess of $24 million trying to kill off these finned invaders, and that effort hasn’t proven to be fun for anybody, except possibly the Pike.
The Northern Pike of Lake Davis have been poisoned. They have been electrocuted. They have been shot, netted, hooked, cornered, dynamited, starved and suffocated. The state even drained the lake. For over a year the nearby human population couldn’t drink the water, it was so full of piperonyl butoxide. The pike barely noticed the stuff.

Sometimes it seemed that the "experts" were hunting down the pike individually, one at a time, to beat them to death with sticks and clubs. It was like trying to control flys with a fly swatter. It seems to have just ticked them off.These Franken-Pike refused to die. They weren't on any endangered species list, they’re on the ten most wanted list. They’ve had more people gunning for them than Osama bin Laden, and with about as much luck. When nothing else worked Fish and Game tried stocking Lake Davis with oversized Trout fry, thinking they would be too big for the young Pike fry to eat and the Pike would then starve to death or be eaten by the giganto-trout. But in response the Pike began growing nine to fourteen times faster than normal. They became super-pike fry-enators: big nasty Pike that had no trouble swallowing the Trout of unusual size.

Six hundred Pike were caught in Fish and Game sample nets the year after the lake was poisoned. In 2004 the catch was 17,635. In all, something over 65,000 Pike have been pulled from Lake Davis since humans began trying to eradicating them, and God knows how many sacrificial Trout. But however many it was, it wasn't enough.

In May of 2005 the Pike Fry were caught trying to find a way around the Pike screens on the spillway. And in 2006, after a winter of heavy snow pack and spring rains, Lake Davis came within inches of overflowing the spillway entirely, releasing the Pike directly into the Sacramento River system. Still, not willing to admit he has been beaten by a mere fish, Steve Martarano of California Fish and Game gamely insisted, “We’ve gotten better at knowing where the Pike are.” Yeah, Steve: they’re in the water.

Well, in January, 2007, Fish and Game announced plans to try it one more time. In the fall of 2007, as part of yet another $12 million "new" program, about 48,000 acre feet of “rotenone”, a commonly used and “safe” pesticide, were dumped into the lake and, this time, upstream in the lake's tributaries. And this, The Department of Fish and Game assured everyone, would finally kill off "the-Pike-that- wouldn't-die" without killing the people or the local economy...again. We wouldn't know for certain if it worked this time until spring. The ice over Lake Davis was still 12 to 24 inches thick, but under the ice 31,ooo new Eagle Lake Trout have been re-stocked, ranging in size from 8 oz.to 3 lbs. And down there, in the dark water, unseen by human eyes, the battles are occuring that will decide the fate of many a naturalist at Fish & Game. As spring approached they poured in another 1 million Trout. And everybody in California had their fingers crossed. But I've got to tell you, that to me the tale of Lake Davis reads more like Mary Shelly's monster story.

Meanwhile biologists raising endangered California condor chicks use hand puppets to feed the baby vultures, so they have no positive human interaction before they are released. But despite these efforts about a half dozen of the first juvenile Condors freed in the wild chose to hang out at the Pine Mountain Club, a condo resort village down the road from Fraser Park, at the Western end of the Tehachapi mountain range between Central and Southern California, where it seems the birds figured out on their own that their razor sharp beaks and talons designed to rip open animal carcasses worked even better on plastic trash bags and kitchen window screens.

The “naturalist” studying the Condor-condo interaction returned home after a hard day of remote Condor observing via powerful binoculars to discover three of the 30 pound birds and their 10’ wingspans, gallivanting about his bedroom, using it as a sort of playroom and free toilet. They had entered via a slit they made in his window screen. One was in his underwear drawer shredding his shorts while the other two were slowly dissecting his mattress with all the abandon of adolescences free from parental oversight. Still, it almost looked as if the birds had picked out this guy personally to deliver a message, and maybe they had; "Stop watching us, you eco-papparazi!" And the average citizen, like say maybe Russel Crowe, would have gone into that room with a broom and defended his privacy, and he would driven those feathered gangbangers out the way they had come in!

But this guy was a “naturalist”; to avoid human interaction with the feathered truants he retreated until the birds got bored and left on their own. The “naturalists” then convinced local politicians to require all trash to be held inside until the morning of collection, and then placed only in locking containers. And at the landfill the garbage bags would be immediately covered with dirt.

The thinking was that without an easy food supply the condors would leave. Instead the Condor youth gangs’ response was to loom about on the roof of a local restaurant, depressing the hell out of potential customers. The condors were actually waiting for the trash trucks to arrive. They would then use their extraordinary skills at gliding to follow behind the trucks all way to the dump, where they quickly descended on the leftover meat and soup cans and macaroni and cheese containers if they were a dieing wooly mammoth. The front loaders couldn’t cover the trash bags without the risk of burying a condor at the same time, so the meals could now be eaten at leisure in a sort of Condor olfactory buffet. Game, set, and match to the Condors.

The biologists and naturalists were horrified because it didn’t fit their image of noble Condors sailing in an empty sky above an untouched wilderness - which is where the Condors almost became extinct in the first place. Need I point out that not a single condor died at the Pine Mountain Club? They ate too many french fries but none of them died!

The happy ending to this story of rebellious Condors is that once they matured and mated the adult condors didn’t want their offspring growing up in an urban environment anymore than Republicans do. Today, the Pine Mountain Club is condor free, except for a few weeks every summer when the newly adolescent vultures fly in for a sort of avian spring break, a condor rumsringa. They eat spicy food, taunt the humans and stage panty raids on the naturalists. And then they leave.

Now, I’m not suggesting we try protecting endangered species with dynamite or by raising their cholesterol levels, but it does seem that the animals we’re protecting are all in trouble while the ones we’re trying to exterminate are experiencing population booms. What can we learn from this? Well, that there are six billion humans on this planet at present and baring a natural disaster or WMD we are not going anywhere. And if we do, so are the Condors and most of the Pike and Trout. Modern Condors, searching for dinner while soaring above the wilderness are going to see a lot more humans than dead deer. And Pike and Trout are going to meet a lot of little fish with hooks in them. So why not “humanize” them, teach them what every mentally retarded pigeon already knows; the fries are better at Burger King, don’t drink the yellow water, never trust a politician in an election year and don’t go swimming in Lake Davis unless you want your talons bitten off.

-30 -

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