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EXOTICS IN THE WILD

The movement of homo sapiens around the planet has altered the geographic distribution of many species of plants and animals. In some cases, species are moved intentionally for agricultural or aesthetic reasons. Others are mere "hitchhikers" capitalizing on the great distances that humans travel to colonize new ecological niches. In all cases these newly introduced species are exotics, strangers in a strange land. Once introduced into a new ecosystem these exotics can often profoundly change the balance and abundance of native species.

Predators and competitors may not exist in the new environment which would in their native setting control growth and reproduction. Some cases are dramatic. Tamarisk, for example, has nearly established a monoculture in some Colorado river drainages, choking out native cottonwood and willows. Cheat grass is quickly overtaking a landscape once dominated by native sagebrush in the Great Basin. The introduction of such proliferative and dominant exotics into a natural system by accident is tragic; when intentional, it is inexcusable.

Wilderness as tracts of land that Congress has established by law to be preserved essentially unchanged by the hand of man should be protected with due vigilance from the encroachment or introduction of exotic species. Some regulations are in place to protect the High Uintas Wilderness, such as prohibitions on livestock feed that contains viable seed. However, this obvious management principle is ignored for several exotic species intentionally introduced into the wilderness for recreatio nal purposes. These include the active and frequent introduction of brook and rainbow trout within drainages to "improve" fishing opportunities in the streams and lakes of the High Uinta Mountains. As discussed in the last issue of The LYNX, both brook and rainbow trout are a direct threat to the native Colorado River and Bonneville Cutthroat Trout that once reigned as the only native trout in the High Uintas. In addition to being a direct threat to these species, they impact the aquatic ecosy stem just as profoundly as cheat grass and tamarisk in their respective niches. Many lakes that historically did not support a productive fishery are now brimming with brook and rainbow trout. Predation on amphibians, and aquatic invertebrates has radically altered the native flora and fauna of these lakes. And yet persistent exotic fish stocking continues within the wilderness.

Where do we go from here? Continued introduction of exotic species within the High Uintas Wilderness is incompatible with the spirit of wilderness. An immediate end of the intentional introduction of exotics is the least we can demand of those that manage the wilderness. Reversing the consequences of years of misguided management of the High Uintas fisheries is a more complicated and difficult issue. Input from biologists specializing in aquatic ecosystems must provide guidance for such an ambitious undertaking. The ecological consequences of technologies historically used for fish removal must be carefully considered by experts and an educated public particularly when being considered within the wilderness.

Perhaps words from the Hippocratic Oath can guide us in this and future endeavors within wilderness areas: "...I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous...."

Michael Howard, HUPC Board Member


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