Residents blast CDFW over fish-removal plan

Dan McDonald

Managing Editor

Angry Plumas County residents gave two state biologists a piece of their mind last week.

More than 50 people attended the May 6 Board of Supervisors’ meeting to blast the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for its plan to kill all the trout in a county lake. The trout-removal is an attempt to protect the yellow-legged frog.

Supervisor Terry Swofford bluntly set the tone before CDFW biologist Kevin Thomas completed his opening statement.

“We had a spotted owl situation here that destroyed our economy. And this, to me, is just another way to destroy more of our economy,” Swofford told Thomas. “You’ve got too many ‘oligists’ on your payroll.”

Thomas and CDFW biologist Sarah Mussulman defended the fish-removal plan. The removal, at Gold Lake in the Bucks Lake Wilderness Area, is scheduled to begin next month.

The biologists told the overflow crowd in the supervisors’ chambers that it was their job to protect the endangered frog by any means possible — even if it meant killing the frog’s predators. In this case, it’s the fish.

But it appeared that everyone at the meeting strongly disagreed. Dozens of residents spoke; none of them supported the state’s plan.

Several residents accused the CDFW of conducting research and making a decision behind the county’s back.

Local Fish and Game Commission member Ron Horton said he learned of the fish-removal plan when CDFW biologist Amber Rossi broke the news at the commission’s April 3 meeting. Horton called it “an after-the-fact courtesy visit that showed the CDFW’s arrogance.”

“You didn’t dream this idea up the day before the April 3 meeting to remove fish out of Gold Lake,” Horton said. “Whenever the decision was made to count frogs at Gold Lake, the public should have been informed.”

Thomas admitted the CDFW should have informed the county about the plan sooner. But he said earlier notification wouldn’t have stopped the fish-removal project.

“Yes, we should have come in September when we found out we got the money, and told the commission about the project,” Thomas said. “But I’m not going to argue with you about it. It’s pointless.”

The CDFW received a $115,000 grant from the federal government in September, 2013, to pay for the trout removal. Thomas said the CDFW applied for the grant in April, 2013.

The mountain yellow-legged frog officially gained endangered status last month. Thomas said his agency is now directed to protect it.

“We are charged as a state agency with protecting the resources of the state,” Thomas said. “When a species gets listed as threatened or endangered, it’s our job to try to recover it and get it delisted.”

Despite the public’s objections, Thomas said the CDFW will begin removing trout from Gold Lake with gillnets in the middle of June.

He said the nets would be set up at night during the summer months for the next three years.

Frog survey

The plan to remove the trout was the result of a high mountain lakes survey that began in 2001. The survey was in response to a petition to have the yellow-legged frog listed as an endangered species.

Mussulman said every lake on Forest Service land was surveyed between 2001 and 2005. She said three Plumas County lakes were found to have yellow-legged frog populations near by. Gold Lake was the only lake that also had a fish population.

Critical habitat

According to the biologists, Gold Lake is considered critical habitat for the yellow-legged frog.

Although no frogs have been discovered at the lake, CDFW surveys identified a small population (10 to 20 frogs) less than a half-mile away at Rock Lake. That lake has no trout population.

The biologists believe some of those frogs could eventually hop to Gold Lake if the predatory trout were removed.

Thomas and Mussulman said Gold Lake is the only Plumas lake currently targeted for fish removal.

Supervisor Lori Simpson, who invited the state biologists to the meeting, said residents have a good reason to be worried that other parts of the county could be affected.

“If you look at the map, all of Plumas County is critical habitat,” she said.

Public outcry

For most of the two-hour meeting, many of the residents in attendance blasted the biologists for not communicating with the county during the survey and subsequent decision to remove fish.

Residents said the lack of communication made them suspicious that the CDFW was not telling the whole story. They said they were worried other lakes or streams would be targeted.

“You’ve got a lot of frustration here because this has been going on for years and now we are becoming aware of it after a decision has been made,” Sheriff Greg Hagwood said. “The strong concern is... What’s next? We had the spotted owl. Now we have a yellow-legged frog. People are just instinctively thinking ‘When is the other shoe going to drop?’”

Thomas said he wasn’t aware of any other species in Plumas County being studied. He said people could call or email the CDFW’s legislative office for more information. “We give out whatever anyone asks for,” he said.

In response to questions about the negative impact on local fishing and the economy, Thomas said the CDFW is actually planting more fish in Plumas County than it used to.

But, in the case of Gold Lake, he said protecting the frog is the state’s priority.

“Right now the Endangered Species Act outweighs the recreation,” Thomas said in a comment that drew groans from the audience.

Horton asked Thomas if the CDFW “even cared” what the public had to say. He noted that in a 2011 CDFW yellow-legged frog status review, 90 percent of the submitted public letters were against fish removal and/or listing the frog as endangered.

“You asked for public comment. People responded with letters in good faith, thinking that their voice might be heard,” Horton told Thomas. “Why are you asking for public comment? It seems like it’s a joke.”

“It’s a good question,” Supervisor Jon Kennedy said before Thomas could respond. “Let me answer it for you. It’s just a tradition that the federal and state government has to create a perception that they are listening. ... but they are not really.”

Frogs destined to die?

According to the CDFW’s 2011 status report on the yellow-legged frog, disease has accounted for a 90 percent decline in its population.

More than 80 percent of the yellow-legged frogs have an amphibian fungus called Batrachochytrium dendropatidis (Bd for short).

The Bd fungus first appeared in California in the early 1960s. According to the 2011 status report, the fungus kills most of the frogs that contract it. However, following an initial population crash, many of the remaining frogs develop immunity to the fungus.

Thomas said the frogs in Plumas County are “Bd-positive” meaning they have the fungus. The biologists suspect that the small Plumas population has survived the initial outbreak and is immune.

Residents at the meeting argued that since frogs near Gold Lake have Bd there is no guarantee they will survive.

“This (fish removal) is probably all for nothing, because the Bd-positive frogs are probably going to disappear on their own at some point,” Horton said. “So we end up with no frogs and no fish in Gold Lake.”

Mussulman countered that it’s actually better to try to save Bd-positive frogs than frogs that aren’t infected with the fungus.

“Those frogs have been Bd-positive for as long as we have know about Bd, which is 20 years or so,” she said. “The fact that it made it through that Bd bottleneck is a good thing. And yes, it’s a small population and could go extinct regardless. Everything could go extinct regardless. That’s not a reason to not act (to save it). But since it’s Bd-positive and it’s living positive, that means it is more likely that it is going to survive.”

Legal options

Supervisor Kennedy said the county’s best option to stop, or possibly delay, the fish removal could be through the legal process. He said the county would be exploring its options.

He noted that the state and federal governments are required by law to consult the Plumas County Coordinating Council on matters that directly affect the county.

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