Global Weirdness

What winter 2013 will mean for singed fins across the country

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Two years ago winter delivered. Snowpack stacked at 100-, 200-, and even 300-percent levels—depending on where in the West it dumped. A year later, La Nina bitch-slapped us with one of the worst droughts in recent winter memory. These massive swings look a lot like global weirdness, the same volatility that united irritable forests to spark en masse this past summer and fall.

In August, northern Colorado’s High Park Fire lit up and swallowed hundreds of thousands of forested acres. Stoked by hot, windy, no-precip-in-sight conditions, homes were lost, businesses suffered, and fishing was shut down on the Cache la Poudre River. Beyond Colorado, fires left few casualties behind. They burned through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and more. Along that smoky path: plenty of vulnerable trout habitat. In southeastern Oregon Lahontan cutthroat turned belly up from asphyxiation along stream sections touched by the Halloway Fire. And farther West, California’s McCloud River was another victim of the hot, hot, heat.

CalTrout’s Craig Ballenger, who reported on the Bagley Fire and its effects on the McCloud fishery, began to sweat the situation in August. What started as four wildfires burning within Lassen Volcanic National Park could have put the Pit River in peril. But as Bagley raged—more than 40,000 acres torched, all told—it changed course and took aim at the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and the McCloud.

“Once the fire started moving north, the next stream in its path was the McCloud,” Ballenger says. “We were thinking uh-oh, the ridge-tops are third and fourth growth and then some steep tributary streams flow down into the canyon. It looked bad.”

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Bagley crested the river’s upper ridgelines, threatening old growth timber in the McCloud canyon. But it never intensified to a uniform burn. When the fire briefly jumped the river, forest service and Cal Fire crews held it—saving the south slope of the canyon. In mid-October Bagley simmered down, roads re-opened, and good fishing returned.

Back on the Poudre, still licking its wounds from the intense High Park burn, trout may not be so lucky. Experts such as Boris Kondratieff, professor of entomology at Colorado State University, are currently exploring best- and worst-case scenarios for the fishery through the next several months. According to Kondratieff, the fact rivers like the Poudre have been historically kicked in the teeth by massive dewatering projects and prolonged droughts underscores the threat of regional fire episodes. The good news is that embattled bugs—such as localized mayfly, caddis, and stonefly populations—posses the wherewithal to re-colonize fast when conditions are right and to survive unpredictable hydrologic episodes.

But unpredictability is the key question mark. Normal snowpack followed by sustained run-off will help flush sediment from the Poudre system. In time bugs will stage a comeback and trout, such as warmer water-tolerant browns, should fair OK—even with more parched weather in the forecast.

“Overall we’re looking at 3 to 5 years for a return to normalcy on the Poudre. Variables like precipitation, river hydrology, snowpack vs. drought, and low groundwater levels will all factor into the mix,” Kondratieff says. “But those things are hard to predict and that’s why we’re calling it global weirdness.”

In 2013 that weirdness, at least across most of the country, is so far producing a real winter. One year ago today only 19.5 percent of the country had snow. Recent NOAA reports show 63 percent coverage… with more pow on the way.

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