Photo credit: Supreme Court Pediment by user Kevin Harber

How the California Fish and Game Turned Community Opinion Around

I never thought they could dig themselves out of the situation. But they did--and the way they did it is a great lesson for all conservationists who work with people. California’s Eastern Sierra was a pleasant surprise for me.  Previously I had assumed California was a land of gigantic freeways, continuous urban sprawl, and crowded theme parks--but most of the state wasn’t.   When I drove from Olympia, Washington to take my new job as a professor at the USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in Tucson, Arizona, I avoided the freeways in favor of two-lane highways that weaved through miles of desert, pines, and shrub step dotted with fragrant grey sage.  Interspersed occasionally through this vast countryside were small towns, and when I saw the sign for Portola, I knew I had hit the jackpot.  We had talked about this town so much in my fisheries management classes, and I was excited to see the real thing. This was 2000, and things did not look good for the California Fish and Game Department (CFG) in Portola County.  Members of the community had vehemently protested their use of rotenone, a fish poison, to kill illegally introduced northern pike in Lake Davis in 1997.  Why was removing the northern pike so important?  Northern pike are voracious predators, not native to California.  It was feared that the fish would reproduce and spread to other areas in the state, like so many other non-native species had done before.  They might endanger imperiled salmon runs and other fish and wildlife downstream.  CFG staff thought rotenone was the answer.  Made from the roots of a specific species of tree called the derris, It had been used for thousands of years to stun and kill fish for food.  The plan was to kill the fish in the lake and prevent their spread across the wider area. This decision was not popular with many members of the local community, chiefly because the commonly-used rotenone formulation contained a small amount of an agent linked to cancer.  Even though the amount of the cancer-causing agent to be used to disperse the rotenone was supposedly 1/10 that allowed in drinking water by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Community members marched on the state capitol, threatened CFG biologists with arrest, chained themselves to buoys in the lake prior to treatment of the lake, and pelted CFG members with Halloween candy during the treatment.  Treatment of the lake went forward, under armed guard.  When chemical residues of the rotenenone treatment persisted in the lake longer than predicted, CFG was sued and settled on a payout of $9.1 million to the community. When I visited in 2000, I asked about the treatment in a local book store and library, obtaining articles and documents I could use in my fisheries management classes in Arizona.  Did I ever get an earful from local residents!  However, when another rotenone treatment was required in 2007 to kill northern pike that reappeared, there was widespread community support, even from some of those officials who had chained themselves to buoys during the 1997 treatment.  Why did public opinion change so drastically? California Fish and Game learned from past mistakes.  Within two years of the 1997 roteneone treatment, northern pike were again seen in the lake.  Fish and Game staff moved to an office in town to be closer to the constituents.  They held dozens of meetings, working diligently to educate the public and include them in their decision making.  Fish and Game discussed options at these meetings, listened to public input, and tried to address their concerns.  Doing nothing about the newly-found pike was considered, but quickly dismissed—town businesses were impacted severely by their presence, which curtailed the lucrative trout fishery.  In addition, there was fear that northern pike could escape downstream to areas supporting imperiled fish and wildlife susceptible to northern pike predation.  Other methods besides rotenone, including electroshock, nets and explosives, were first tried but were unsuccessful in ridding the lake of northern pike.  Although 65,000 northern pike were removed, many still remained in the lake.  By this time, the public realized another rotenone treatment might be one of the few solutions left.  However, many things were done this time to make a rotenone treatment more palatable.  Previously, Lake Davis supplied drinking water to the community.  California Fish and Game had drilled water wells so that ground water could supply Portola with water.  Residents were concerned with the synergists used with the liquid rotenone in 1997.  For the 2007 treatment, a different, less-controversial formulation of rotenone was used.  The Plumas County Public Health Agency and the state Department of Health Services determined that the treatment plan would not adversely affect the public.  The U.S. Forest Service who owned the land surrounding the lake was asked to support the treatment and close the area during treatment. Bill Powers, now a county supervisor and one of the local officials that previously chained himself to a buoy stated “In ’97 there were secrets; there were unknowns.  The more the local government people like myself asked questions, the more we were stonewalled.  This time, every question we asked has been answered.”  Furthermore, Powers stated “I’ve seen the evidence now that there are no public safety issues and that it is a necessary evil.  I wish we didn’t have to do it, but we do.  In 1997, it all came down to no communication.” For the second treatment, the CFG implemented a classic example of how to create positive community change. Answer questions, avoid arrogance, involve the community in decisions, listen. The result was a treatment of Lake Davis with community support, not condemnation.  Those of us in the conservation can learn much from the difficulties – then later success – of the California Fish and Game. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ——————– Scott A. Bonar is an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona and Unit Leader of the USGS Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. He has over 25 years experience conducting award-winning natural resources research for federal and state agencies and private industry. In 2007, Island Press published his book The Conservation Professional’s Guide to Working With People, which you can read about at