Let’s say you have a heart attack.
Mild. No permanent muscle damage.
You’re back from the hospital — feeling enormously relieved.
Should you resume smoking, or focus instead on bringing your blood pressure down?
That’s about where we stand with Fossil Creek, after Arizona Game and Fish crews used a fish-smothering poison to kill off the smallmouth bass that had infested the lower 2.5 miles of the state’s premier refuge for native fish.
The bass made it over a permanent fish barrier sometime after floods piled up sand and boulders on the downstream side of the barrier in 2010. Alert researchers spotted the bass just above the barrier and Game and Fish put in a temporary fish barrier a mile or so above the breached barrier.
Alas. They moved too slowly, since no one had been actively monitoring the permanent barrier that protected Fossil Creek from the non-native species in the Verde River. Moreover, they had to contend with Forest Service delays caused by the inflexible rules and regulations concerning wilderness areas. The folks eager to move quickly to put up a new fish barrier and repair the old one found themselves up against the same frustrating delays as the residents of Tombstone seeking to repair their century-old water system after a flood damaged the aging pipeline through a wilderness area.
Subsequent surveys showed that the resourceful bass had apparently moved above the site of the temporary barrier before Game and Fish could complete the paperwork.
The discovery of bass a mile above the barrier forced Game and Fish to undertake a roughly $200,000 effort to kill off all the bass along several miles of stream. To their dismay, they discovered that the bass had spawned this spring, producing thousands that threatened to overwhelm native fish.
We fervently hope that Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted in time to save the precious native fish refuge, brought back from the dead six years ago when APS agreed to dismantle an historic power plant and return the travertine-rich waters of the ancient spring to the streambed.
The native fish now wriggle and dart through every major pool, clearly visible in the crystal clear water. The ecosystem now supports two species of predatory chub, three varieties of plant-eating suckers and a variety of smaller fish, like topminnows. All these once-plentiful native fish are dwindling toward extinction elsewhere, as a result of a century of human actions that have dewatered or degraded 90 percent of the once-lush riparian habitat. The introduction of non-native fish into almost every stream, river and pond has only compounded the damage.
Why should we care?
For starters, biologists have only begun to unravel the secrets of evolution and genetics — so we don’t know what treasures the ancient DNA of these hardy desert survivors may harbor.
More importantly, we have a sacred trust to protect the diversity and wonder of the natural world. That’s not just because nature tourism likely holds the key to the future of this whole region. It’s because the protection of life’s miracles remains a moral imperative.
So we’ll cross our fingers and hope that this belated, but crucial, effort has succeed in protecting this precious place.
And then we’ll urge Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take their legal and moral obligation to protect the native fish of Fossil Creek much more to heart. Biologists must monitor and maintain the fish barriers and intensively educate the public to avoid a return engagement by the bass.
We had an ecological heart attack — and the native fish of Fossil Creek could have coded. So we can’t afford to congratulate ourselves on the near miss, light up a cigarette of denial and hope for the best.