Bounty on Pikeminnow
by Bill Schneider
Okay, for $64,000, who knows what a pikeminnow is? I'll go out on a limb and say only fisheries managers, biologists and the most serious anglers among us can answer this. And I can, of course, because I've done some research on the Internet.
Back in the mid-1990s, it seems, driven by a rightful need for political correctness, the American Fisheries Society, the professional organization of fish biologists, changed the name of the squawfish to the pikeminnow, a native fish ranging throughout most of western Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
Even with a PC name, here's a fish with no friends. In an age when fisheries managers worship natives and loathe exotics, even purest biologists can't love the pikeminnow. So disliked it is, in fact, that fisheries managers brought back--even though they can't say the word--one of the historically archaic wildlife management policies, the bounty.
(Actually, younger readers, even those interested in wildlife management, might think a bounty hunter is somebody who catches bad guys on network television instead of somebody who kills predators for money.)
I became interested in the pikeminnow (okay, it was a slow day!) after reading a press release from the Idaho Fish and Game Department about the northern pikeminnow "sport reward" program. I surprised to learn that this thinly viewed bounty program has been going on since the early 1900s in the Columbia and Snake rivers, where the northern pikeminnow is an indigenous species. The Bonneville Power Administration funds the bounty program, and in league with state and regional fisheries agencies, the BPA encourages anglers to catch and kill as many northern pikeminnow as possible. BPA pays $4 or 8 per fish and then grinds them up for "organic" fertilizer.
"Anglers have averaged several hundred dollars during a season," the Idaho wildlife agency noted in its release, "the top 20 have made from $15,000 to nearly $35,000 fishing for pikeminnow."
Now, there's an economic development plan Wall Street doesn't know about.
Fisheries folks catch, tag and release some fish, and if you're lucky enough to catch one, you take home $500. Keeping track of tagged fish caught helps the program managers estimate how much of the population we destroy each year.
For Millenials who never heard of a bounty, we had them on everything when I was a young gun. I used to go out after school to shoot gophers with my single-shot .22, cut off the tails, and take them to the county extension office for a bounty of three cents each. We had "rabbit drives" (bet you don't know what that is) and got paid a whole dollar per bunny, which was a boon to high society ladies because they ground up those bunnies for mink farms so we could have more fur coats. If we were lucky enough to shot an evil red fox, we got ten bucks, which was enough to buy fifty gallons of gas. We had bounties on everything--raccoons, crows, skunks, coyotes, snowy owls, just about everything except warblers and game animals like deer, antelope, ducks, geese, and pheasants. Bounties also helped America rid the landscape of ultra-evil wolf and bring all other predator species, except the coyote (way too smart for us) to the edge of oblivion.
Then, suddenly, wildlife managers discovered that the prey populations controlled the predator populations, not the other way around. Controlling predators was not only expensive, but only accomplished political goals, not wildlife management goals, so by the 1960s, most bounty programs became extinct.
Until the pikeminnow came along and created a conflict. Fisheries managers had to ask themselves. Do we want more salmon or more pikeminnow? Guess we know the answer to that one, right?
Fisheries managers designed the "sport reward" program to reduce the number of large pikeminnow because they thrive on salmon smolts. So far, according to the press release, the program has "removed" 2.7 million northern pikeminnow, nearly 300,000 last year alone, saving many thousands of juvenile salmon and costing BPA customers many millions of dollars, but creating a lot of fertilizer.
After reading the release I wondered why we're doing this, so I called the program's toll-free number. Craig Miller answered and explained that this isn't just a matter of favoring one native species over another. In reality, Miller explained, the dams on the Columbia River system have created an unnatural environment, which favors the pikeminnow over salmon. "The dams tilt the playing field," he noted.
Salmon need moving water, but pikeminnow prefer still water, and that's what you get when you dam a river. Lots more still water--and lots of bigger than usual pikeminnow feasting on baby salmon, a native species already on the trapdoor to extinction because the dams destroyed spawning runs.
A few adult salmon make it from the ocean through the gauntlet of fish ladders and deposit eggs in historic spawning grounds. Then, when the smolts make their run back to the ocean, they become disoriented after passing through the turbines and fish ladders and fall into still water below the dam teaming with oversized pikeminnow in a feeding frenzy. You gotta feel for those baby salmon!
For the record, the dictionary defines a bounty as "a reward, inducement, or payment, especially one given by a government for acts deemed beneficial to the state, such as killing predatory animals..."
"You could call it that, but they don't use that word," Miller said when I asked him why we just didn't call it a bounty. "We're not trying to eliminate a species, only control the numbers."
Sort of like those gophers and jackrabbits, I guess.
Anyway, this is all very interesting (to me, at least), and this is probably a successful, scientifically sound program. I'm sure it would be too embarrassing for biologists to call it what it is, but no matter. My concern is that the idea might spread. We don't want "sport rewards" going around.
I know, for example, that the National Park Service has seriously discussed placing a bounty--and they used the word--on lake trout invading Yellowstone Lake and threatening the largest native cutthroat population in the world. They didn't do it, in part, because the word kept catching in the fisheries biologists' throats.
And what's the chance that some people in Idaho and Wyoming are already talking about putting a "sport reward" on wolves?
In western Montana, fisheries folks hate northern pike, even though it's a native species to the state, and have no limits on catching them or methods for doing it. Is a bounty next?
That's why I think they should call a bounty a bounty. This might keep it from infecting other wildlife management programs.
Footnote: If interested in getting some of that bounty money, you can call the Sport Reward Hot Line, 800-858-9015, and the folks there will promptly and courteously answer your questions. Or visit the website at www.pikeminnow.org
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