YERINGTON -- A government plan to reintroduce a threatened species of trout into the Walker River system is intensifying calls for an independent scientific study of the basin's water related issues.
Working under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act, the California Department of Fish and Game is working in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service to establish a self-sustaining pure strain of Walker Lahontan cutthroat trout in mountain tributaries of the Walker River.
Claiming the program is based on flawed presumptions and is not attainable, homeowners, businessmen and ranchers dependent upon the river's waters want an independent scientific investigation of the program. Both Mono County supervisors and Lyon County commissioners are contemplating asking a third party, possibly the National Academy of Sciences, to review the issue.
Lyon County Commission Chairwoman Phyllis Hunewill this week received unanimous commissioner support for her proposal to pursue an independent evaluation of the Walker River Basin environmental impact study and cutthroat trout reintroduction program.
She said the Academy, or another peer group of scientists, will provide the neutral, third party study necessary to undeniably put to rest the disputes surrounding the two proposals.
"I think this issue must be independently investigated. We as commissioners must be concerned with the threat to our tax base and agricultural economy. It is important to work with Mono County and other interested agencies to include everyone's concerns. We must insure the Walker River Basin does not become another Klamath River, Lynx hair or spotted owl," Hunewill said in support of her request.
Commissioner David Fulstone applauded the effort, but cautioned the board must be ready to accept the findings of a third party, even if in disagreement.
Hunewill agreed "we are just pointing out we want (the government) to use good science in making their decisions. That is the real issue here."
Mono County Supervisor's legal consultant Stacey Simon has been directed to look into a possible third party option to investigate the cutthroat reintroduction program.
"Because of the work the NAS did on the Klamath River project, the Academy of Sciences was suggested, but I understand there is a five-year waiting period and that they are very expensive," she said. "But they are not our only option. We would probably look into some local possibilities and study the scope and related costs. There has been no commitment from our board as of yet."
At the root of some skepticism is a feeling the threatened Lahontan cutthroat will not naturally reproduce, dooming the program to planned failure. Others say the program is impractical because the cutthroat is an extinct species that cannot survive among other species, dooming the trophy rainbow and brown trout fishing that local economies depend upon.
Realtor Rose Murray, chairman of the 15-member Antelope Valley Regional Planning Advisory Council, presented a letter to Mono County Supervisors expressing opposition to the Lahontan Cutthroat Recovery Program as it now stands, requesting the supervisors invite the National Academy of Sciences to review and validate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's scientific reports.
"There has been flawed research and we want to know what is behind this. They are putting the cart before the horse," Murray charged. "We feel this is an effort to control our waters. If they put the fish in and they fail, they have a finger in our river, leaving it up to us to prove them wrong. We have seen this happen in other areas. Why do we have to wait for it to happen here?
"This will devastate our economy. There has to be a balance somewhere between the Endangered Species Act and our economic destruction."
Hunewill did not express an opinion regarding the trout reintroduction program, but stated it is an issue that must be undeniably proven or disproved by sound and unbiased scientific evidence.
"The LCT must be able to replenish themselves. The records of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife must be able to prove or disprove this. An investigation by the NAS would definitely help resolve this issue."
Antelope Valley rancher Jim Coffron, a member of the regional advisory planning board, supports the belief the Walker strain is an extinct species and, if reintroduction is successful, the program will eliminate the other trout populations.
"If they put the LCT back in the river, it will devastate our economy. The U.S Fish and Wildlife says this species will not coexist with other fish, so to place them there they will have to get rid of the browns and rainbows," Coffron asserted.
Coffron said the other trout species in Slinkered Creek were poisoned and barriers placed to prevent them from intermingling with the pure strain Walker trout "and there has been no fishing there for 18 years. What would happen to our economy if no fishing was allowed in this area for even five years?
"We are not opposed to the reintroduction program or the endangered species act, but we do not like the plan that is in front of us. We want all species to thrive, but should it devastate the economy of our communities? They need to do an economic study before the fish are in the river and our economy is destroyed."