Science shapes all we do

By Chris Wood

I was a clueless college graduate from New Jersey, standing alongside the Anchor River in Alaska, wondering what killed all the fish. Later, I learned about the remarkable life-cycle of salmon and how they return to the stream of their birth to have sex one time. Then, they die. And their decaying bodies provide the nutrients upon which the river depends.

In a very real way, my fascination with the science of a salmon’s life-history shaped my professional career. At Trout Unlimited, science shapes our work, too.

Science can connect us to our communities. Our restoration work with the Forest Service on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia indicated the need to expand the efforts to adjacent private lands. The challenge was that many private landowners in West Virginia do not trust the government. Gary Berti and his team explained to land-owners that replacing undersized culverts with bridges would protect their properties from flooding. They explained how fencing cattle from more than 200 miles of stream reduced erosion and improved their property values. As a result, we have worked with more than 300 farmers and land-owners to restore more than 36 miles of wild and native trout habitat in the state.

Science loves a relevant political context. In 2001, the federal government shut off irrigation on the Klamath River in Oregon and California for the farmers. Social and economic disruption followed. The next year they irrigated in a drought, and tens of thousands of imperiled salmon and steelhead died. The commercial fishery was shut down a few years later because of the lost fish. Scientists had long held that the way to recover salmon and steelhead on the Klamath River was to remove the four dams that blocked passage to nearly 500 miles of habitat. Without the crises, TU staff such as Chuck Bonham and Brian Johnson might not have been able to make that science heard. Thanks in part to their work, removal of the four Klamath dams is slated to begin in 2020.

Science is cool. Bristol Bay, Alaska, supplies a shocking half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon harvest. Why? The fact that several hundred discrete populations of sockeye salmon, with different run times and habitat preferences, swim into the rivers and streams that drain into the bay. Scientists attribute Bristol Bay’s remarkable productivity—more than 60 million sockeye were caught last year—to the habitat and the incredible diversity of the sockeye run. Our opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine, led by Nelli Williams and her team in Alaska, is based on protecting that amazing diversity.

Science is us! Technology makes us all potential scientists. Jake Lemon, for example, has trained 1,500 TU volunteers, Angler Scientists, to monitor water quality and conduct visual assessments in the shale gas and pipeline region of Central Appalachia. TU steelhead scientist, John McMillan, uses Angler Scientists from our chapters in the northwest to help gather data to help managers make better decisions about steelhead. They help with salmon nest (redd) counts, and collect DNA from water samples (called environmental DNA, or eDNA) to help distinguish steelhead redds from salmon redds. John is working with Erik Young of the East Bay chapter to utilize SONAR technology to help with steelhead counts in the Eel River.

Science can change law and policy. If I had a nickel for every time a biologist or scientist said, “I am only a scientist, what can I do?” I could buy the national office a very happy, happy-hour. In 1991, three scientists, including our former senior scientist, Jack Williams, published a paper that showed that 106 stocks of Pacific salmon had become extinct and another 214 were at a high risk of extinction. That scientific paper woke up elected leaders in the Pacific Northwest. It garnered the attention of a President of the United States and became the basis for massive policy and improvements in how salmon and steelhead habitats are managed on tens of millions of acres of public lands across the interior and Pacific Northwest. More recently, our new senior scientist, Helen Neville and our TU science staff and partners helped to pioneer a game-changing approach to modeling extinction risk of endangered trout species such as the Lahontan cutthroat trout using a newly-developed database of field data and GIS and remote sensing technology.

Science don’t lie. TU’s model of protecting, reconnecting, and restoring habitat for wild and native trout and salmon is a direct response to the effects of a changing climate. TU scientists and others predict that native cutthroat trout will lose an estimated 58 percent more habitat due to thermal stress and negative interactions with non-native trout. Our science-based approach of protecting, reconnecting, and restoring trout and salmon habitat can help to recover the resiliency of watersheds and buy time until we can stop the causes of climate change.

More than 25 years removed from the banks of the Anchor River in Alaska, I remain a layperson—but a layperson in awe of science. Science is not a panacea. It will not a provide us with all the answers, but it does help us to ask the right questions. As state and federal agencies funding shrinks, TU will continue to invest in science and research to help protect and restore trout and salmon and the watersheds upon which they depend.

To learn more, or support our science work go here.

Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited


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