(Published in MEANDERINGS in the BUTTE WEEKLY March 15, 2017)
Bull trout haiku:
fresh water, bull trout
cold, clear, complex, connected
both precious and rare
When Ed Abbey said we needed more predators, he wasn't talking about bull trout. He was talking about charismatic mega-fauna—grizzlies, wolves, cougars, and such. But I like to think that if Abbey had ever watched a 30-inch bull trout devour a wounded spring run Chinook salmon, or a runt-gosling, he'd have included this voracious predator on his list of species we need more of.
The now familiar story goes that the Salish people fished for spawniing bull trout with bows and arrows along Silver Bow Creek. They called Silver Bow Creek “Sin-tahp-kay-Sntapqey” which translates to “Place Where Something is Shot in the Head”. But today bull trout on the brink.
We simply do not value them as we do other species.
In terms of aesthetics, many fish are more handsome than the big-headed bull trout. They were not blessed with visual beauty like rainbow or Yellowstone cutthroat.
Bull trout are of no use to us in terms of economics. They mature slowly, live long, maintain small predator-sized populations, and require complex habitat. In short, humans have little regard for bull trout because they can't be mass produced in the machinery of industrial hatcheries.
Many anglers trained in utility still consider bull trout a trash fish because they are piscavores—they eat other, valuable fish—like exotic summer runs of salmon.
Once upon a time, fishing guides on the McKenzie River in Oregon caught and killed bull trout—for the good of the river. They hung them from bridges and barbed wire fences—like coyotes—and encouraged others to do the same.
But bull trout have value beyond human notions of aesthetics, economics, or utility. They have what Aldo Leopold called intrinsic value—value in-and-of-themselves. They have value just because they are.
Ecology has provided us yet another way to value bull trout—as an indicator of a healthy system. Of all salmonids, bull trout may require the most pristine environment. Those who know refer to the bull trouts' habitat needs as the 4Cs: cold, clear, complex, and connected.
They are thermally sensitive and live in streams that run clear and cold. Bull trout require complex habitat—lots of cover, large woody debris, boulders, undercut banks, and gravel spawning beds; they need riffles, runs, and pools. And, in order to continue existing, bull trout populations must be connected. Sadly, most are not.
One ten-thousandth of all water on earth moves over land as rivers. Of all the river systems in the world, few are cold, clear, complex, and connected enough to support populations of wild bull trout. Fewer still exist in the bull trout's native range. We ought to value these places and these fish for no other reason than they continue to exist—in spite of us.
Rivers sustain us—humans and bull trout—regardless of the how beautiful we are or how much we contribute to the economy or how useful we may be. In the grand scheme of things, our value is derived not from these things, but from our very existence and from the sacred roles we play in natural systems.