SCA Intern Alex Kirk’s Summer Removing Non-native Brook Trout from the White River National Forest
This past summer I had the opportunity to work with fisheries biologist Matt Grove along with my two crew leads Mark and Graham in the heart of the Rocky Mountains within the White River National Forest. At the beginning of my internship, I heard foreshadowing stories from the guys about kill camp from years past; of invasive brook trout being euthanized, fish carcasses strewn about, days upon days of working in the rain, and bean and cheese burritos for lunch…every day for two weeks. I thought to myself, “What am I getting myself into?!”
The mission is simple: remove as many of the non-native brook trout from East Meadow Creek as possible. It is year four of a five-year project of eradicating the invasive species in order to restore the native cutthroat trout population. Brook trout were stocked between 1979 and 1983 in the Piney River, which connects with East Meadow Creek and Meadow Creek. Since then, the brook trout have pushed the cutthroat trout way upstream and consequently toward extinction by competing for and taking their habitat. In order to restore the stream and preserve the cutthroat population, it is essential to remove the brook trout.
Standing with a five-gallon bucket in one hand and a dip net in the other, I carefully step down off the mossy, undercut bank and into the stream. The cold water is flowing moderately fast and about shin-deep; I am wary not to trip on the slick camouflaged rocks covering the bottom of the stream. I walk to the back of our formation: two “shockers” in front with Smith-Root LR-20 backpack electro-shockers, four backup netters spread out behind them, and me in the back carrying the bucket of water we use to hold the fish we catch. We are all wearing our tan waders and polarized sunglasses. Once the electo-shockers are switched on, the constant high-pitched beeps signal that electricity is flowing from the electrode. We have been shocking for days now and have heard the beeps for so long that I feel like I can still hear them even when the shockers are turned off. It’s like getting a song stuck inside your head, except the lyrics are an endless “beep, beep, beep…” When the shockers are on, you cannot touch the water, a wet rock, or moss with your bare hands because there’s a good chance you’ll feel a tingle or get shocked.
The shockers resemble the Ghostbusters with their big packs on. In one hand, they’re holding a dip net and in the other, a handle with a large metal ring on the end. “Shocking” says one of the shockers, and they sweep their electrodes left and right like a metal detector. In an instant, fish roll over onto their backs and float toward the surface. “Fish at your trode!” is yelled by Pete and the shockers use their nets to scoop up the fish as quickly as they can. Once netted, they awkwardly hand their nets to the backup netters so they can get an empty net and the backup netters can put the fish in the bucket. The brook trout recover quickly from the shock and the bucket grows heavy in my right hand as they swim around and more get added as we head further up the stream. Unbeknownst to the fish, they will be killed in a matter of minutes. Holding the bucket, I look down at the fish, which are all brook trout, with the beautiful vermiculation pattern on their back, some bigger fish with a bright orange patch on their fins. “Sorry guys,” I think to myself.
Once we have gone a reach of 100 meters, two of us start shuffling everyone’s packs to the end of the next reach, sometimes carrying two or three packs as we make our way over downed pines. We are all covered in scrapes on our hands and I have bruises all over my legs, partially because I am clumsy but also because of the stobs sticking off of the downed trees I keep walking into. While we shuffle the gear, the crew has an assembly line to process the fish: two people kill them, another person measures them and another person takes the weight, while one person records the data.
I was told by Matt that we kill the fish ourselves because it is more humane than letting them suffocate along the stream bank. Unfortunately, most of the fish are too small to eat and our work is done three miles into the backcountry; refrigeration is not an option. So, we give them a quick, lethal bop on the head and hope that an animal will make a good meal out of them. Once we’re done, we get right back in to the stream and start all over again until the day is through.
We repeat this process for two weeks and on the last day, the number of brook trout we catch in each reach becomes fewer and fewer. Finally, we catch our first cutthroat! We record the length and weight and carefully place it back into the stream, making sure it recovers fully from the shock. We catch a few more cutthroats and our work is done until next year.
Between 2011 and 2014, the total number of non-native fish removed from the Meadow Creek watershed is 5,332 by means of spot removing (shocking in various locations within the watershed) and shocking an approximately five-kilometer stretch of stream in 2013 and 2014. In 2013, there were 2,513 non-native fish removed and in 2014 there were 1,713 non-native fish removed.
Looking back on my experience, I admit that the work was trying for me both physically and mentally, but I surprised myself by successfully helping our crew restore balance to East Meadow Creek, which has become devastated by the invasive brook trout. Taking part in removing an invasive species gave me a new perspective on conservation work and the length field workers will go to protect a native species from extinction. It is hard work but essential to the native ecosystem. Each year the crew catches and removes fewer brook trout, which is a sign the project is heading in the right direction, but still, there is a long way to go before the cutthroat population can be restored to what it was before the invasion.
This project was funded by the National Forest Foundation in partnership with the US Forest Service.