A day before California Department of Fish and Game was to unleash poison into an Alpine County creek to exterminate fish species so that a rare trout could be planted, a federal court judge Tuesday ordered that the kill be stopped.
Concerned that rare species may be destroyed in the process of poisoning 11 miles of watershed south of Lake Tahoe at Silver King Creek, Federal District Court Judge Frank C. Damrell in Sacramento issued the restraining order, saying he was concerned the fish-killing poison may harm other threatened species in and around the creek.
Damrell's action comes after Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly Jr. ruled on Friday that a state plan to preserve a rare trout by poisoning the waterway should not be delayed.
The federal court ruling was announced late Tuesday afternoon, and a spokesman for DFG, which was to oversee the project, was not available for comment.
An attorney representing a consortium of conservation groups that want the fish kill stopped said he was pleased with the judge's injunction.
"The judge preserved the community's right to know what the results of this poisoning would be on a pristine area that Californians care deeply about," said Pete Frost, an environmental attorney with the Oregon-based Western Environmental Law Center.
"The court recognizes that rotenone kills, and requires the agency to be sure that we understand the effects of using this chemical before we do it."
The case was filed by the nonprofit conservation groups California for Alternatives to Toxics, Wilderness Watch and Alpine County-based Friends of Hope Valley.
According to a statement Tuesday from the law center, the court halted the poisoning until DFG releases information showing whether other rare species live in the stream and, if so, how they would recover.
Crews had entered the Carson Iceberg Wilderness Monday to begin poisoning fish in the middle section of Silver King Creek today.
Before the ruling, officials from DFG and Nevada Department of Wildlife said they were confident the poisoning would not be stopped.
State officials hope to aid recovery of the native Paiute cutthroat trout by eliminating its competitors.
"We just felt confident we were going to complete the project," said DFG Chief Deputy Director Paul Stein. "We were hoping to take the first step in preserving the Paiute cutthroat trout.
"The treatments will remove the salmonids (and) other types of trout," said Stein before the ruling. "That way, we don't have to worry about any future hybridization. That's the goal."
Conservationists have consistently argued that the poison would destroy other organisms critical to the ecosystem, as well as endanger humans.
Sacramento Judge Connelly said Friday that a temporary stay of the project "would be against the public interest" because there wasn't enough evidence before him to decide that the "degrading impacts" on the watershed and its ecosystem outweigh the public's interest in preserving the Paiute.
Conservationists, led by the Eureka-based Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, challenged the Paiute project with lawsuits in federal and state courts in Sacramento.