January 2, 2012 - Bend Bulletin - Was it a bull trout in Tumalo Creek?

January 10, 2012
January 2, 2012 - Bend Bulletin - Was it a bull trout in Tumalo Creek?

Was it a bull trout in Tumalo Creek?

The fish disappeared in 1988 before that could be confirmed; had it been, it may have altered the way we use local waterways

By Nick Grube / The Bulletin
Published: January 02. 2012 4:00AM PST

More than two decades ago, Tumalo Creek spawned a fish story perfectly constructed to appeal to conspiracy buffs.

It has a controversial discovery, government employees, a group of true believers and, of course, a possible cover-up.

Who are the players? A state biologist. A fly-fisherman. The U.S. Forest Service. And, at the center of the story, there’s a frozen fish in a coffee can.

If it were still around, the fish could have a significant effect on how we use our local streams and rivers today, particularly Tumalo Creek. It also could complicate the city of Bend’s contentious $68.2 million Bridge Creek water project, which is now undergoing an environmental review by the U.S. Forest Service.

As it stands, however, none of that matters. That’s because in 1988, that frozen fish, reportedly a federally protected bull trout, disappeared.

“The first thing that comes to your mind is, how could they possibly lose something like that, with the significance it could have?” said Craig Lacy, a local fish biologist and member of the Native Fish Society. “The next thought is, was it deliberate or not?”

Lacy was the president of the Central Oregon Flyfishers in August 1988 when the suspected bull trout was found in Tumalo Creek. Like many other “fish heads,” he was excited about having a threatened species living once again in what is believed to be its natural range.

Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife biologist Timothy Unterwegner discovered the trout while he was surveying fish populations in Tumalo Creek from Shevlin Park Road near a Tumalo Irrigation District diversion. The fish differed from the brown, brook and rainbow trout that were known to live in the creek. This animal was longer, had a silvery hue and didn’t have a spotted dorsal fin. To Unterwegner, this indicated he was holding a bull trout.

To confirm the find, the fish needed to be genetically tested at Oregon State University. The specimen was placed in a two-pound coffee can full of water and frozen. It was then given to a biologist from the U.S. Forest Service for delivery.

But before Unterwegner’s discovery could be verified, the fish vanished. It never made it to Corvallis.

“A lot of weird theories came out,” Lacy recalled. “Most had to do with the incompetence of the department or the school. Some were more conspiratorial.”

Perhaps the most outlandish story was that someone from a local irrigation district had somehow highjacked the fish while in transit. Some even speculated that ODFW and the Forest Service had somehow lost the fish on purpose.

However, there was no proof to support these hypotheses. Instead, the disappearing bull trout became a part of local lore and has been discussed by many fishermen and government officials for more than two decades.

“Who knows what happened?” said Bob Mullong, a member of the Central Oregon Flyfishers who was with Unterwegner when he found the fish in 1988. “Once it left our hands, I don’t have a clue. … Anything’s possible, because it could have started a lot of controversy.”

Even though bull trout were not considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act until 1998, Rod Bonacker of the U.S. Forest Service said they were still a “sensitive” species and a “species of interest” back in 1988. The discovery of such a fish in a new location, he said, probably would have caught the attention of various agencies and kick-started a few studies.

“Why it didn’t at that time I don’t know,” Bonacker said. “Probably in 1988 there just wasn’t as clear of an understanding as to how important it would be to find a bull trout in Tumalo Creek, so it just didn’t get followed up on.”

Bonacker quickly dismisses the notion that ODFW or the Forest Service would have tried to hide Unterwegner’s discovery. One reason, he said, is his agency’s cumbersome bureaucracy probably wouldn’t have allowed such a cover-up. He also noted that biologists tend to be “jazzed” about finding new fish populations, especially those that are threatened.

“The idea of a government conspiracy involving the Forest Service is pretty laughable,” Bonacker said. “To me, it’s not a conspiracy theory. It just maybe wasn’t the most efficient way to handle the evidence.”

The true fate of Unterwegner’s bull trout is much more mundane, Bonacker said. It was accidentally thrown away.

After the fish was frozen, he says, it was sent to a Forest Service barracks in Sisters and put in a freezer. The barracks residents cleaned out the freezer that day and put the coffee can in the garage. No one knows how long it remained before it was dumped in the trash.

“It could still be there,” Bonacker joked. “But I’m guessing it probably got tossed at some point.”

Even though the fish is long gone, no one says they have reason to doubt Unterwegner’s discovery. What they don’t know is whether the bull trout was just a stray, or if there were more swimming in the area.

So when the city of Bend decided to upgrade its surface water system — which diverts water from a Tumalo Creek tributary — the story of the missing bull trout was revived, this time as part of the Forest Service’s environmental assessment of the project.

Bonacker, who’s overseeing that study, said it was important for the Forest Service to look for bull trout. Much of this dealt with Unterwegner’s find and the fact that Tumalo Creek could be prime habitat for bull trout.

But when the Forest Service performed a fish survey this past fall, it found no evidence of a bull trout population. While there’s a chance the survey might have missed some fish, the agency is 98 percent sure the study is accurate.

Had the count yielded different results, Bonacker said uses on Tumalo Creek, such as fishing and drawing water away for drinking or irrigation purposes, probably would receive a lot more scrutiny.

“It could change things quite a bit,” he said. “But how it would change things in terms of the city’s water project, I don’t know.”

State and federal wildlife officials agree, saying it’s too hard to speculate. In general, they agree that more studies would be warranted. They also said the federal government, particularly the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, probably would have heavier involvement in decision-making processes surrounding the creek.

There’s no way to know what would have happened had Unterwegner’s fish made it to OSU in 1988. Maybe it was a sterile hybrid. Or maybe it was the individual that would lead to the discovery of a bull trout population that had gone unnoticed.

For nearly a quarter-century, Unterwegner lived without knowing what truly happened to that fish. A few years after the discovery, he moved to John Day, where he eventually retired after 31 years with ODFW.

Over the years, he thought about what happened on that day in 1988 when he pulled what he believed was a bull trout from the waters of Tumalo Creek. It eventually became one of the most memorable moments of his career.

“There were events in my career that are obviously etched a little deeper than others,” Unterwegner said, recalling a large fish kill in Gold Beach caused by a power loss at a hatchery. “When you find a fish where it’s not supposed to be, those things tend to stick with you.”

He was never a believer in conspiracies, especially those involving the government he worked for or the Forest Service. There was simply no incentive, since bull trout weren’t an endangered species at that time.

Unterwegner always just assumed the fish he
found somehow got lost in the daily shuffle, similar to a memo in a large stack of paperwork. When he recently learned it was thrown away after possibly rotting in a Forest Service garage, he wasn’t too surprised, saying, “Mistakes happen.”

“That’s kind of an inglorious way to disappear,” he said. “And if that’s the way it happened, that’s really too bad.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, ngrube@bendbulletin.com

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2011


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