Neil Travis - August 15, 2011

Is there anyone out there that hasn't said, 'It's not like the good old days?' Unless you are just a youngster – anyone under 40 is suspect – you have a valid reason to utter those words since the times in which we live are nothing like the 'good old days.' However, some wag has been quoted as having said, "There's nothing like the good old days and there never was!" There is some truth in both statements.

There has been an ongoing debate on the FAOL bulletin board about the native fish restoration projects that have become increasingly popular in many parts of the country. In Montana we are trying to restore the Westslope Cutthroat Trout in watersheds where we believe they were formerly the only trout species. In the Eastern United States they are attempting to restore the Brook Trout [which is really a Char] to its former preeminence. Having been involved in the discussion about this process for a number of years I find that the motivation for this idea is both a mixture of nostalgia and what I like to describe as environmental remorse.

Way back when the first European settlers grounded their boats on the east coast of our great nation the indigenous trout species, the brook trout, was the only trout swimming in the small and great waterways east of the mighty Mississippi River. Running some of the northern rivers at the proper season were Atlantic Salmon, but there were no brown or rainbow trout. In northern Michigan there was a species of Grayling, and the Lake Whitefish were found in the Great Lakes. These were the only members of the Salmonidae found in the eastern United States prior to the introduction of brown and rainbow trout.

A careful examination of the historical record illustrates that these indigenous salmonoids did not fare well with the coming of our European ancestors. They cut down the forests that provided shade and kept the waterways cool, they caught the fish in great numbers for food and fertilizer, and they dammed the rivers blocking access for spawning fish. They polluted the rivers with run-off from logging and farming operations and later with sewage and chemicals. By the time of the Civil War many of the indigenous salmonids in the eastern part of our country were in serious trouble. By the turn of the 20th century the Michigan grayling was basically extinct, in America the Atlantic salmon was restricted to a few streams in Maine and Massachusetts, and the Brook Trout had mostly retreated to small headwaters streams. This was all the result of environmental conditions caused by human activity.

When the pioneers crossed over the wide Missouri and pushed westward they crossed the Great Plains which was virtually devoid of any salmonoids, but when they reached the Rocky Mountains and crossed over into the Pacific slope they found them in abundance. There were several species of Pacific salmon, plus rainbow trout, cutthroat trout and Arctic grayling. In addition, there was sea run rainbow trout that are silver in color when they're fresh in from the sea so they called them steelhead. Soon there were numerous commercial fishing operations and canneries along the coast from California to Washington. It seemed with such abundance they would never run out.

Unfortunately, they repeated the same mistakes that had been made in the east. Soon they were cutting down the forests sending logging waste and runoff into the pristine waters. They were overfishing the native stocks, and polluting the waters with sewage and other chemicals. In addition, there was an even greater threat to fish in the west and that was the need for the very water that they lived in. Entire streams were dewatered for irrigation, streams were dredged up for gold, and the water was diverted to run sluice boxes and hydraulic mining. Entire mountainsides were washed away with high pressure hoses to get to the tiny flecks of gold that were in the rocks, and arsenic leach piles sent rivulets of poison into the surrounding soils and waterways. Then, with the coming of the 20th century they built huge dams across most of the major rivers for the production of electricity. The ancient spawning grounds of the salmon and steelhead were forever out of reach.

On both coasts the indigenous salmonid populations took a licking from the loss of habitat brought about by the action of mankind. To supplement the native populations we began to move species around. Brown trout were brought in from Europe; likewise rainbow trout were planted in streams formerly occupied by cutthroat trout in the west and brook trout in the east. These newcomers settled in well, just like the pilgrims and the pioneers, and they soon were outcompeting the locals. In most peoples opinion it was a good thing.

Fast forward to the 21st century and suddenly we have this urge to return the indigenous species to their former ranges, but to do that the newcomers have to go. It's important to understand that, in many instances, the 'newcomers' have been the predominate species in many of these drainages for 100 years or more, and if they were not there no significant salmonid population would exist. I'm not certain how many generations it takes to become a native but obviously 100 plus years and several generations isn't enough.

Like our ancestors, I'm afraid that we have not learned from the mistakes we made in the past. We have tried to play God many times before and we should have found out by now that we don't have the qualifications. There is no way that we can turn the clock back to some former time when our minds tell us that things were better. The pristine waters that our ancestors sloshed through on their way toward building the world that we now live in are gone as surely as the Passenger Pigeon and the Michigan Grayling. They are reminders of a former time, and while it may be pleasant to recall them we cannot bring them back again. Those pristine waters were the product of an environment that only exists as a shadow of its former self in a few small locations.

A few years back there was a movement to restore the Great Plains, a project labeled Buffalo Commons. The idea, which is still alive and well in the minds of true believers, is to restore the Great Plains to something like it was during the exploration of Lewis and Clark. They, the true believers, envision vast herds of buffalo migrating along their historic routes from Canada to Texas. However noble this idea might be the reality is "it ain't gonna happen!" There are some places in Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas where you can still see large herds of free roaming buffalo, pronghorns, and other Plains animals but they are a remnant, a relic, a vestige of a world that no longer exists and cannot exist in our modern era.

It's my humble opinion that the restoration of the eastern brook trout or the western cutthroat trout to their former preeminence except in a few areas is like having free roaming buffalo making their annual migration from Canada to Texas in 21st century America – "it ain't gonna happen!" In addition, except in a few very isolation locations, it's my humble opinion that, if it means eradicating a viable fishery to reestablish a formerly indigenous salmonid population, that it should not be considered. Does a brook trout or a cutthroat have any more food valuable than a brown or rainbow trout? Do the species that utilize trout as food refuse to eat brown and rainbow trout because they are an introduced species? From a sporting standpoint are the formerly native species a more sporting fish to catch?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and return all our rivers and lakes to the pristine state that they were when our ancestors first set foot on this continent? Perhaps, but we have no such a wand, and for all our scientific advancements we are at a loss to pull off such a trick. Let's spend our limited resources protecting and preserving the fish we have and not the fish we once had. Certainly we should protect those fisheries that have viable populations of native fish, but let's not try to reinvent the past.

Thomas Wolfe, in his book entitled You Can't Go Home Again, had it correct when he wrote: "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."

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