Pesky pike winning public relations battle in Sierra town

PORTOLA, Calif. (AP) -- The voracious northern pike that have survived every effort to eradicate them from a scenic Sierra Nevada lake now appear to be winning the public relations battle as well.

State wildlife officials poisoned Lake Davis six years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the foreign fish they fear will devastate the lake's trout population and could endanger downstream salmon. They've since tried shocking, netting, trapping, hooking and even blowing up the toothy pike, only to see the population keep growing.

The California Department of Fish and Game has exhausted all 11 options suggested by a steering committee of federal, state and local officials, and has set a public meeting Monday seeking residents' views on the next step.

Despite the department's extensive, yearslong community education effort, many residents still are bitter over the lake's poisoning and what they feel was rough treatment by state officials. There's little trust for the department, and less for proposals to poison or drain the lake again, residents said in interviews.

"Fish and Game is going to do what they want to anyway," said Joyce Denzer-Lantz.

"I just feel really hopeless and powerless," agreed Donna Robblee as the two chatted in Robblee's beauty salon.

Department officials recognized they had a serious public relations problem after they dumped 50,000 pounds of the chemical rotenone into the lake in 1997. The attempt killed most animal life -- but not all the pike.

The effort cost the state $2 million, plus $9.2 million in reparations to residents. Portola school children were bused to the state Capitol to protest, and some restaurants warned wildlife officials they weren't welcome.

Charles Porter, who owned a bar at the time, said he turned down a $5,000 reparation payment as "blood money."

"What government agency outside of Nazi Germany puts the eradication of some fish above humans' water supply?" Porter asked.

State officials said they learned their lesson. They opened a Portola office and staffed it with professionals including the mayor's wife, a longtime resident. And they vowed to take no radical steps without community consensus of the sort they're seeking Monday.

The staff puts out newsletters, organizes community meetings, and talks to school children and civic groups as the state edges again toward steps that could affect the lake and the area's tourism economy for years.

"I hope it doesn't get really ugly, like it did the last time. Because it got really nasty," said Ivan Paulsen, an affable wildlife biologist leading the state's attempt to mend fences.

Residents now "may not like it, but at least they're willing to talk about it," Paulsen said. "When you look at the overall picture, something's got to be done to eradicate the pike, because the danger is just too great. Lake Davis is just a small part of it when you look at the potential impact all the way down to the (San Francisco-San Joaquin river) Delta."

California is trying to avoid the fate of areas like Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, where illegally introduced pike have devastated the trout and salmon populations. Some lakes there are barren of any fish but the pike, which then feed on each other.

Colleen Marsh, a steering committee member who draws her well water from just below the Lake Davis dam, credits the state biologists for their work, but thinks they should keep controlling the pike by netting and shocking.

"The people who are for the poisoning don't have to live here or drink the water," she said. "It should be people before pike. It has to be if you have a conscience."

Paulsen estimates that planning for another attempt would take at least until 2005, plus another three to 10 years to drain and refill the lake, depending on rainfall.

"The first year they poisoned it, it was like the town went dark. It took a couple years to come back," said shop owner Sharon Weaver.

"We're looking at a lot of misery, no matter how the darn thing goes," said Ed Laurie, a steering committee member.

Laurie, who originally opposed treating the lake, is now convinced it's necessary -- but doubts many residents agree. Some residents are resigned to what they believe to be inevitable and impatient with the delay, but they seem outnumbered.

"Boy, there's a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation," Laurie said. "There's just a lot of hate of the state, hate of government."

Some residents are convinced the pike already have escaped down river, or that the department itself planted the pike first found in 1994.

Others think the department is exaggerating the danger to the local trout fishery that draws crowds particularly from the Reno, Nev., area, about an hour away.

"I don't think the pike is as big a problem as they pretend it to be. I think the pelicans eat more trout than the pike do," said Joe Huckeba, who helps run the Grizzly Store and Campground a mile from the lake.

The department says most of the pike are tiny, living in shallow weedy areas until they grow big enough to devour trout.

Joe Lantz grew up in Montana, where the pike "didn't seem to do a lot of damage. The pike and the trout seemed to live together." Moreover, he and his wife said pike are good eating.

"If Portola would advertise pike, all the businesses here would thrive," said Marvin Redmon as he downed a drink at the Bank Club Bar near the Fish and Game office.

"Keep the pike and get rid of Fish and Game," agreed bar owner Brian Hudson. "Where are the animal rights people when we need 'em? Don't those pike have a right to live too?"

Former bar owner Porter, who now mans the cash register at Gold Rush Sporting Goods, said, "You'd be surprised how many steel leaders we sell to people who want to go up there and catch some pike. At least we can brag we have the one lake in California with some pike in it."


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