While staying in southwestern Utah several years ago, a friend and I enjoyed an evening walk to a view of the Virgin River. A verdant thicket of willows and tamarisk highlighted the Virgin’s sinuous path through the valley. Islands of golf course greens dotted the desert milieu of lava rock and creosote. Interstate traffic noise permeated the soundscape. Lizards basked in low-angle sun, and red-tailed hawks held court from on high.
And so we beheld the complex landscape of St. George.
From our perch, my friend explained the process of removing invasive fish species from the Virgin River in order to protect the native species. Native river dwellers are netted and removed from sections of the waterway, and a poison is added to the river. As it flows downstream, it suffocates the remaining non-natives – such as the red shiner – by inhibiting their ability to remove oxygen from the water. Crews just above the Arizona border are on-hand to add a neutralizing agent to the water so fish beyond Utah’s borders are not affected. Small dams are erected in the waterway to prevent invasives from traveling upstream to inhabit previously poisoned waters.
It’s a convoluted process, one that becomes increasingly complex as the years and incursions accumulate. Wildlife management is one of few institutions where the taking of life is a kind of atonement.
Thinning the deer herd for a lack of wolves.
Exterminating the prairie dogs for a lack of forage.
Eradicating cougars for a lack of space.
And we poison our rivers to protect them. This is the latest remedy for indiscretions borne of arrogance and ignorance. Red shiners were introduced in Lake Mead in the ‘70s as a baitfish. They’ve since traveled upstream and – with their voracious appetite for roe – they’ve decimated the natives in the process.
But the Virgin River’s six protected native species – including the endangered Virgin River chub and woundfin – are in peril for reasons beyond the introduction of red shiners. They are impacted by the amount of water we take from their habitat and the load of toxins we place in it. Now, we are righting our riparian wrongs by infusing a delicate desert stream with rotenone. We do so with the best of intentions – and with a benign ignorance toward the intricacy of the global puzzle and the intimacy of its myriad pieces.
Just like red shiners, we are hardwired to endure, to spread, to pursue genetic immortality. We mold this world to fit our needs, and we make mistakes along the way, unaware of all else that is unintentionally shaped by our touch. This is not sin, but survival. And survival comes at a price.
We introduce livestock across the arid West and believe that it belongs. We eradicate predators to save our own chosen prey. Then, with disease along the trophic cascade, we find ourselves feeding the elk, culling the ailing herd members and investing in watershed, range and aspen recovery programs. In this landscape of linkages, we become the connection between dispersed dots.
Now, with the reintroduction of wolves – a controversial reparation – they must abide by our rules: no migration beyond predetermined boundaries, no livestock depredation, no growth beyond preordained numbers, and no movement unnoticed by technological tracking. We call it management, not seeing it as oppression. We are trying to ameliorate old wounds, but we are doing so with a heavy hand.
We introduce tamarisk as windbreaks and erosion control, believing that our Maker must have overlooked this small but important detail. And now we spend millions on herbicides and herbivores to make right out of wrong. Unfortunately, the southwestern willow flycatcher – a bird endangered due to grazing, dams, water withdrawal and sprawl – has taken up residence in certain tamarisk thickets, making eradication of the invasive weed more complicated.
It is a complex world, and we are but newly forged gods and guardians.
As my friend and I beheld St. George’s scene of rock-bound fairways and tamarisk-lined currents, I realized that we are all complicit. We are all native and invasive, simultaneously. We err, and we atone, and connected as we are, we drag the world along on this heady and bumbling journey.
Jen Jackson is a writer and business owner in Moab.
ByBy Jen Jackson