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Town would like a stake through the pike

Times Staff Writer

PORTOLA, Calif. -- Four miles north of this High Sierra town, the front-porch gang at the Grizzly Store recently threw a shindig to ring out another fishing season at Lake Davis and curse the dreaded predator that has haunted these parts the past decade.

Folks came out of the hills, more than 200 strong, to enjoy bubbling beans, barbecued tri-tip and beer. Then, as the late-afternoon light crept up the conifers and dusk descended, they gathered on a gravel parking lot and ceremoniously torched a lath-sided wooden effigy of the saw-toothed fish that killed their beloved lake.

Death to the pike!

“We built it. We burned it,” declared Sara Bensinger, the Grizzly’s hale and hearty proprietor. “It was kind of like feeding the fish gods. Pleeeeease get rid of the pike.”

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State wildlife authorities are trying to do just that.

On Tuesday, for the second time in a decade, state Fish and Game Department crews will pour poison into the scenic Sierra reservoir in a bid to finish off the northern pike. The invader from the Midwest has established itself at the top of Lake Davis’ food chain, devastating the trophy-size trout while proving immune to extermination.

Pike have turned the reservoir into what locals call a dead lake, undermining Portola’s economy in the process. They pose an even bigger threat to fisheries throughout Central California.

If they ever escaped, the finned marauders could severely dent the state’s fragile salmon and steelhead populations and even venture down into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, imperiling water exports to Southern California.

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In an attempt to prevent such a disaster, state wildlife officials plan to pour more than 16,000 gallons of the fish poison Rotenone into Lake Davis and the web of creeks, springs and seeps that feed its watershed.

The last time Fish and Game tried this extreme tactic was in 1997. It was an unfettered failure -- and a public relations disaster. Locals outraged by what they viewed as an environmentally incautious and bureaucratically imperious effort by the state won $9.2 million in damages. And the pike reappeared 18 months after the poisoning.

This time, Fish and Game officials have mounted a campaign heavy on ecological sensitivity, diplomacy and public education. Ed Pert, who heads the agency’s pike-eradication push, said this effort is “a moon shot,” far more sophisticated in style and substance than the previous one.

Bill Powers, Portola’s mayor in 1997, remembers it like a bad dream.

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Pike first appeared in nearby Frenchman Reservoir in 1988, probably dumped by an unthinking backwoods angler intent on introducing a hard-fighting game fish to the Golden State. Wildlife stewards managed to eradicate the fish from Frenchman by 1992, but then it showed up a dozen miles west in Lake Davis.

On an overcast day 10 years ago, state officials first set out to poison the lake. More than 100 California Highway Patrol officers descended on Portola, police helicopters buzzed overhead and law enforcement sharpshooters took up posts to protect a community water tank from sabotage.

Locals were outraged by the treatment.

“Our attitude was, hell, you can’t put stuff in our water and refuse to tell us what’s in it,” Powers recalled. “That’s what set a shock wave off in this community.”

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Powers pulled on a wetsuit, swam into Lake Davis and chained himself to a buoy. Wardens hauled him from the water and into a prison bus.

His civil disobedience established his folk hero bona fides, and voters elected him a Plumas County supervisor. Since the day in 1999 when the pike mysteriously reappeared, he has watched as the Fish and Game Department has struggled futilely to eliminate the fish with a variety of tactics.

As is it were a remake of “Jaws,” the department sent out commercial fishing boats to capture the pike. The fish easily evaded the purse seine nets.

In 2005, authorities held a pyrotechnic media event, firing exploding detonation cord a few feet below the lake surface. The bombing run yielded good news footage but few dead pike.

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The most successful tactic over the years has been electro-fishing, in which pike are shocked by high-voltage paddles and then netted. Workers have harvested 65,000, but pike numbers have continued to soar. Meanwhile, the trout population has plummeted, despite tens of thousands of hatchery fish planted over the years.

As the state has tried repeatedly to eradicate the pike, locals have softened their stance toward Fish and Game officials. They have come to accept that another massive dose of poison might be the last hope.

“The hostility isn’t there anymore, the anger isn’t there,” said Jim Murphy, Portola’s city manager. “I’m not saying people like it, but they understand why it’s necessary.”

Ivan Paulsen, the senior state biologist who has staffed the department’s Portola office the last seven years, has seen a difference.

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“They wave at me with all five fingers now,” Paulsen said, only half in jest.

Paulsen put off retirement for months to see the pike eradication project through. His last day on the job is Friday, and folks hope he goes out a winner, with Lake Davis free of the fish.

To accomplish that mission, Fish and Game is tapping a big slice of its workforce and its best equipment.

Nearly two dozen boats will take to the water, including an Everglades-style airboat that can tote drums of Rotenone into the weedy shallows where pike like to lurk.

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A crew of 250 will be in action this week. They’ve already ventured far up the watershed, treating even the smallest nooks that could provide refuge to the toothy invader.

Using aerial photos and GPS technology, the agency has mapped every imaginable “wet spot” in the region -- tributaries, spring-fed pools, even a few cattle troughs. Last week, workers discovered healthy pike that had wiggled their way last winter into what are now foot-deep puddles a quarter-mile from the nearest brook.

Even the poison is better, officials say. The new and improved Rotenone doesn’t contain the petrochemical dispersants that hung around for five months in 1997, raising fears about toxic risk. This time the dispersants are a soapy formula designed to break down within days. An independent lab analysis eased lingering concerns, and state authorities have promised to continue a rigorous testing program. They vow that the waters of Lake Davis will exceed the most stringent federal standards.

Fish and Game authorities are also keeping an eye out for “credible threats” -- potential eco-saboteurs who might try to pluck a few pike from the lake, hold them in ponds out of harm’s way and then reintroduce them after the wardens head home and the Rotenone dissipates.

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Although genetic testing determined that the current generation is descended from the original Lake Davis pike, biologists still aren’t sure if the fish reappeared in 1999 because a few survived the poisoning or someone threw some back in.

Years ago, Fish and Game wardens tracked down a local mountain man they claimed had called a Reno radio station bragging that he would reintroduce pike to the lake. Wardens raided his property and discovered several fish ponds -- but no pike.

Since then, penalties have been toughened: Violators face a $50,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

To keep people away during Tuesday’s poisoning, authorities have temporarily sealed off the woods surrounding Lake Davis. Roads into the lake will also be closed for the duration of the treatment. Pert said authorities are “keeping an ear to the ground” and heeding “any credible threat.”

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At the Grizzly Store, Sara Bensinger sees good coming after a whole lot of bad.

She bought the Grizzly in 1999 -- and the pike reappeared 10 days after she closed escrow. After a couple of decent fishing years, the trout began to disappear. It has been downhill ever since.

Bensinger put the Grizzly up for sale, “but who’s going to buy at a lake that has issues?” she said. “Reality is, c’mon, the pike took over.”

The walls of her store are still covered with glistening lures and other fishing tackle left over from a long season. Snacks in plastic packages vie for shelf space with firewood. An 1820 potbelly stove sits amid it all.

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Bensinger is set to shut down for the winter in a few weeks. The store will be buried under snow, the lake frozen. She said she’ll reopen come spring’s “ice-out” -- and she hopes no pike will be around to greet her.

If they’re gone, Bensinger just might throw another party. Only this time she might make a chubby female figure out of papier-mâché.

It’ll be a fat lady putting a fatal squeeze on a northern pike. And singing.

--

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eric.bailey@latimes.com


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