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New plan to eradicate pike from Lake Davis gets friendlier reception

January 24, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A decade after poisoning a scenic Sierra reservoir in a controversial and failed attempt to exterminate invading northern pike, California wildlife officials proposed Tuesday to again turn Lake Davis into a chemical stew in hopes of finally finishing off the saw-toothed predatory fish.

While the last effort to treat the lake caused an uproar in nearby Portola and shut down what had been the tiny city's main source of water, this time the proposal is getting a far more friendly reception.

Many locals say they believe the California Department of Fish and Game now is receptive to their concerns about effects on health, the local economy and the environment, and seems better prepared to get the job done.

"Most of the former opposition was because they were shoving something down our throats," said Plumas County Supervisor Bill Powers, who in 1997 chained himself to a buoy in protest. "Now they're bending over backward to address our concerns. But it's still a nasty business."

Fish and Game officials remain concerned that the voracious pike, which they believe were first planted by a backwoods saboteur, could escape downriver to endanger salmon and other native fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and beyond.

Since pike were found anew in the lake in 1999, the state has tried catching them with nets, setting off explosives, shocking them with electricity and even holding pike-fishing derbies.

Nothing has stopped the pike population explosion. More than 60,000 have been taken from the reservoir since 2000, and some locals estimate up to 1 million may now swim the waters of Lake Davis, feasting on its trophy-sized trout.

Last year, the fish came close to escaping. Heavy winter rains brought Lake Davis to within about 2 feet of overflowing and spilling the pike into the Feather River, which leads to the delta. In May, two anglers were caught at a Fish and Game checkpoint attempting to transport live pike out of the region.

"The genie is out of the bottle, but so far it's only leaked into a little larger bottle," said Loris Ryan Broddrick, Fish and Game Department director. "These fish are top-end predators. If they get loose, California's aquatic ecosystem would not look the same."

The proposal, which now must go through regulatory review and further public scrutiny, calls for the state to dump a chemical fish-killing agent -- a liquid form of the pesticide rotenone known as CFT Legumine -- into the water after Labor Day.

While officials early on talked of lowering the reservoir dramatically to hem the fish into a far smaller pool, biologists now believe Lake Davis need be drawn down only slightly to ensure that the chemical has a chance to work -- and give the reservoir time to refill for the spring start of the 2008 fishing season.

The proposed chemical treatment is a newer version of the fish killer used in 1997. It doesn't contain piperonyl butoxide, a suspected carcinogen and toxin that lingered in the lake's waters for months after the first treatment and fanned anger among local residents.

Ed Pert, the department's Lake Davis project manager, said the treatment -- applied at one part per million -- this time will extend far up the reservoir's tributaries, reaching spots four or five miles upstream where pike might find refuge.

The proposal also calls for intensive monitoring of the well water that Portola has relied on. The region is preparing to build a water treatment plant this year that, once the chemical fish killer dissipates in Lake Davis, should allow the community to again tap the reservoir for drinking water.

If all goes well, locals hope that by next year the region can see the lake return as a backbone of the local economy, drawing fishermen and filling kitchen faucets.

"Our economy spikes between mid-May and mid-September, and the rest of the time it's just bootstraps," said Steve Clifton, owner of Leonard's market in Portola. "The timber industry is shut down; there's no mining anymore. Other than a little railroad traffic, we're a bedroom community for Reno."

Many folks will shrug their shoulders and say, "Here we go again," but most will likely conclude that state wildlife officials "have done their homework this time," Clifton said.

Though state officials remain confident they can clear the lake of pike, the chance that an eco-saboteur could strike again remains a haunting possibility.

Broddrick noted that illegally planting pike is now a felony in the state. And the agency will continue efforts to spread the word about the ecological consequences.

"Everyone needs to understand the stakes in this," he said. "Even though they might have loved fishing for pike as a kid in Minnesota, they don't belong here. They could decimate fishing as we know it in California."

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fighting a fish

The state Fish and Game Department will try again to kill the pike in Lake Davis.

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Northern pike (Esox lucius)

up to 47 inches

-- Native to some parts of North America, Europe and Asia, but not to California.

-- Slender, cylindrical fish with a long, flattened snout containing rows of sharp teeth.

--Can reach 40 pounds and 47 inches, with a lifespan of about 25 years.

--Voracious predators, they feed on other fish and small animals.

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Source: California Department of Fish and Game

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