Extinction—by the clock
It isn’t easy being a cheerleader for a bottom-feeder, but I’m feeling up for the task.
Montana’s two varieties of sturgeon—a miraculous, prehistoric fish that feeds at the bottom of lakes and rivers—have recently been given an expiration date, an official prediction of when they will go extinct. A doomsday clock all their own. And few folks seem to give a damn.
The end is expected to take place for the Kootenai River white sturgeon during the year 2030. Across the Continental Divide in the Missouri River, Montana’s last wild pallid sturgeon will quite probably be gone by 2017.
The biology is tragically simple, explains Brian Marotz, a state fisheries biologist deeply involved in the issue. Dams on the Kootenai and Missouri rivers have corked off the natural spring freshet that triggers spawning. Or put another way, the dams slammed a concrete curtain on the spawning. That’s how you spell extinction.
Extinction takes a while because sturgeons live so long. A white sturgeon may live a hundred years. A female won’t produce eggs until she’s thirty. So predicting the inevitable outcome is a relatively simple matter of counting the fish, figuring their ages, and doing the subtraction.
Saving sturgeons, on the other hand, seems a much more stubborn problem, our culture being reluctant to give up or alter dams that provide hydropower, flood control, and navigation.
But here’s why we should care about sturgeons. If you are the literalist Christian type, I’m fine with that. Sturgeons are part of God’s creation and God surely doesn’t take kindly to us squandering the natural world that’s been so generously provided for us.
If, on the other hand, you lean toward the fossil record, here’s another version. Complex, multicellular life on earth is perhaps 550 million years old. Five times in the past 550 million years, comets, meteors, or some other catastrophe slammed into this planet, triggering mass extinction. The biggest of these calamities was the Permian Extinction, about 250 million years ago.
That blow wiped out perhaps 95 percent of all life forms in the oceans. It was curtains for most species, but it proved a great opportunity for a blossoming form of life called the sturgeon. Sturgeons are essentially vacuum cleaners with fins. They swim around sucking up dead and living protein.
Jeer if you must, but this strategy has kept sturgeons on Earth for 250 million years. Modern sturgeon species, the white and pallid for example, emerged in the time of the dinosaurs, about seventy million years ago. Fossil beds in Montana are strewn with the remains both of sturgeons and dinosaurs. Sturgeons easily survived the meteor strike that KO’d the dinosaurs, and likewise coasted through the ice ages of the last three million years that ushered in our current theater of mammals, from moose to muskrats to you and me.
Sturgeons look like dinosaurs because they basically are dinosaurs. Columbia River sturgeons grow to fifteen feet long, which is longer than any car I’ve ever owned. They can weigh fifteen hundred pounds, making them as massive as a bull bison.
I have met old-timers along the Snake, Salmon, and Kootenai rivers who used to catch white sturgeons by setting massive trotlines in a deep river hole and anchoring them to trees. When the line tightened, the fishermen hooked a team of horses to the rope and yanked the fish ashore.
Sometimes, if the fish was particularly huge and the fisherman had just one horse, the fish would win the tug-of-war and drown the horse. Fisherman figured it was an improvement when they got tractors. (Montana’s sturgeons are not that large, but still reportedly put up a herculean fight.)
Yes, the white, light flesh of sturgeons makes them delicious. Caviar is the product sturgeons are most famous for, but you have to kill precious adult females for the roe. Russian species of sturgeon are going extinct as poachers kill fish for black-market caviar.
I don’t know what else a sturgeon is good for. To the best of my knowledge, sturgeons hold no cure for cancer or stand to otherwise better the condition of mankind. I don’t think they have to. I want to keep sturgeons around simply out of respect. Out of awe. Out of our responsibility toward our children. Out of the sheer shame and horror of our own capacity to destroy.
Staring into the abyss of time is like staring into the abyss of space. One sturgeon reflects a continuum of life dating back, one century at a time, two and a half million centuries. Listen up. You can hear the clock ticking.
Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer in Kalispell, Montana.
Bosque restoration begins in Rio Rancho
Restoration of the Rio Grande bosque through Rio Rancho began August 19 with a project to clear nonnative salt cedar and Russian olive from twenty acres.
The work site is below the River’s Edge II and III neighborhoods.
Contractor Swisco of Belen expects to take about three months to complete the $66,000 job. Funding comes from a $5 million state appropriation for water-conservation projects on the Rio Grande and Pecos River.
The local work is a combined effort of Friends of the Rio Rancho Open Space, Rio Rancho Parks and Recreation, and the Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District.
Future projects include clearing invader plants from five- and eighty-acre parcels within the Rio Rancho Bosque Preserve. The nonnatives originally provided ornamentation and erosion control but now are considered water wasters and a fire hazard.
Recycle center practices what it preaches
Placitas Recycling Center
Have you driven by the Placitas Recycling Center recently and wondered whether it was going into the tire-recycling business? Well, in a way, it is. The Placitas Recycle Association is expanding the center and recycling old tires to form a retaining wall. In the near future, the wall will be completed and the fence will be moved out fifteen feet to provide much needed additional storage and vehicle maneuvering room.
Garth De Leon, chairman of the Association's Long-Range Planning Committee, is coordinating the expansion effort with the property owner, suppliers, and volunteer workers. "It's the generosity of the people in our community that is making this possible," said De Leon. "We are grateful to Rob Roberts of Public Service Company of New Mexico (which owns the property) for granting us the right-of-way to expand the site. They are also giving us another 750 square feet on the north side of the site. We could not have pulled this off without the help of Stan Dieker and Rusty Willson, who donated their time, skill, and earthmoving equipment, and Wayne and Harold Dominguez of Harold's Grading and Trucking, who donated the fill dirt."
The Placitas Recycle Association is also expanding the services it offers. In addition to continuing to take cardboard, paper, aluminum, and newspapers, the center now accepts reusable ink cartridges, as well as old bicycles, which are refurbished for the Optimist Club bike-safety program. A limited supply of reusable cardboard moving boxes may also be obtained at the center. Recently, to reflect changes in the market, the center had to change the plastic products it accepts. Currently only #1 (clear) and #2 (milky) plastic bottles are accepted. Colored plastic bottles, such as soda bottles, can be recycled as long as they are transparent, but the center does not accept opaque plastic, such as bleach bottles, or any bottles that have contained hazardous chemicals or petroleum products.
"We also want to express our gratitude to the volunteers who work at the center," commented Frank Sciacca, president of the Placitas Recycle Association. The Placitas Recycling Center, which is located on Highway 165 across from the Comcast facility, is open the second and fourth Saturdays of every month from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. " It's their dedication and hard work, month after month, that make it possible to provide this service to the community." Volunteers generally work a two-hour shift once or twice a year.
If you are interested in volunteering at the Placitas Recycling Center, please call John or Debbie deGraauw at 771-9549. For further information about the center, visit www.placitasrecycle.org.
Public invited to participate in
NM’s first State Water Plan
Governor Richardson has mandated that a comprehensive state water plan be in place by the end of December 2003. Information is being gathered from public meetings throughout the state. A town hall meeting will be held in Albuquerque on September 23-25 by the Interstate Stream Commission, with the Office of the State Engineer and the Water Trust Board.
The OSE has not announced the location of the meeting. Due to limited space, participants will be selected by lottery from applications submitted by interested citizens. Application forms can be downloaded from the OSE website at www.ose.state.nm.us. Applications can be mailed of faxed to the OSE at 764-3893. Applications must be received by September 3. The lottery will take place on September 5.
Public input will be summarized and provided to participantsto help develop workable policy recommendations, which will be incorporated into the final state water plan. Comments are also posted on the OSE website. For more information contact Karin Stangl, Public Information Officer, at 505-827-6139
Solar fair returns
Where do you find information on practical uses of renewable energy, energy efficiency, passive-solar home design, green building, and sustainable-living practices? Look for the answers at the Solar Fiesta 2003. The renewable-energy and sustainable-building fair will come again this year to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center on September 20 and 21 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The two-day event will include classes, workshops, and exhibits that bring new information to home owners and builders. Topics on the agenda include solar financing, fuel cells, electric carts, wind-energy systems, solar water pumping, straw-bale building, green building, photovoltaics, energy careers, and many more.
Admission is $3 for adults; kids under twelve, teachers, and firefighters are free. Classes are $5 each. For more information, please contact the New Mexico Solar Energy Association at 246-0400 or www.nmsea.org.