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The lesson of Lake Davis: Can you save an ecosystem by killing it?


Early on a morning in September, government workers will don masks and protective suits, embark in a fleet of small boats and begin pumping 17,000 gallons of poison into Lake Davis. Within minutes, the waters will be roiling with dead fish, dead frogs, dead salamanders—dead everything that lives in this northeastern California reservoir. The goal of the $16 million project is to eradicate the non-native northern pike that are devouring other non-native fish in Lake Davis, once hailed as a trophy trout fishery.

Poisoning an ecosystem to save it is a dire scenario. But Lake Davis is no pristine alpine jewel: Everything about it is human-made. Lake Davis is a monument to natural resource manipulation that began decades before the current California Department of Fish and Game project.

The lake now teeming with pike was once a 5,000-acre Sierra Nevada meadow blue with camas lilies in spring. Rainbow trout spawned in Grizzly Creek as it meandered through the meadow toward the Feather River. Bald eagles nested in the towering pines at meadow’s edge, and willow flycatchers flitted near the stream.

All that changed in 1967, when the creek began to back up behind newly built Grizzly Dam. State officials planning for urban growth had selected the meadow for one of a series of reservoirs designed to increase the water available to cities and agribusiness. The State Water Project made Grizzly Creek and other streams high in the Feather River headwaters the lifeblood of California’s prosperity far downstream.

To gain local support, government officials promised to also develop the reservoir’s recreation potential. Every spring they dumped truckloads of rainbow trout into Lake Davis. Soon, local businesses were catering to anglers who flocked there to try their hand at landing the feisty fish. An artificial economy grew up around an artificial fishery in an artificial lake.

Enter the pike, a rude intrusion to this counterfeit scene. Spiny-backed, spiny-mouthed and spiny-tongued, these four-foot-long fish have been scaring the bejesus out of the Fish and Game Department since 1994, when they were first discovered in Lake Davis. It’s not their spines but their voracious appetites that terrify state officials. They fear that if the pike escape downstream to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the invaders will swallow up salmon and other native species. They even worry that the invaders might annihilate the striped bass, a non-native species that has become a vital part of California’s $2-billion-a-year commercial fishing industry.

This scenario is such a nightmare that the department has committed millions to the September poisoning. That’s on top of the $20 million it invested in 1997, when it conducted a nearly identical chemical treatment. The first poisoning was a disaster. Local residents were so opposed to it that state officials brought in snipers to deter saboteurs the night before the treatment. Once released into the reservoir, the chemicals leaked downstream, killing fish in Grizzly Creek. Some people were hospitalized for headaches and nausea. The water remained toxic eight months longer than predicted. Worse yet, pike were flourishing again in Lake Davis within 18 months.

No one is happy about this invasive species in a California water body, and no one is happy about a second poisoning of the reservoir, which is used by two communities as a municipal water supply. But no one is talking about returning to the pristine days of yesteryear—before the dam and the creation of a fake fishery. Undoing all that artifice would force rethinking the entire State Water Project. The impacts on California business, agricultural and urban development are so far-reaching that the possibility has never been seriously discussed.

So the meddling goes on: chemicals to kill all aquatic life in Lake Davis, chemicals to neutralize the fish-killing chemicals, chemicals to treat the water for human consumption. Once the reservoir is deemed safe, Fish and Game officials will resume planting fish. They are promising bigger stock to mollify local merchants who have suffered during a decade of controversy and fishing closures.

The lesson of Lake Davis, of course, is that we manipulate natural resources at our peril. The consequences of interfering with ecological systems are almost always unforeseen. The immediate price we will pay is poisoned water and piles of rotting fish. But future meddling may be far more costly. 

Jane Braxton Little is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( She is a writer and photographer based in Plumas County, California.

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