Energy & Environment

Conservationists rap state plans to treat the Lamoille River with lampricide

The Lamoille River flows over the Peterson Dam in Milton on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be applying lampricide to this stretch of the river on Oct. 27. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On Tuesday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife will treat the Lamoille River with lampricide, a pesticide that kills lampreys. But conservationists are worried about the chemical killing other species that also live in the Lamoille.

In 2009, more than 500 mudpuppies were found dead in the Lamoille after a lampricide treatment, raising concern that treating the water now could wipe out the species from the river.

By late last week, a petition asking the Agency of Natural Resources to halt the treatment and protect mudpuppies had more than 900 signatures. The treatment is planned in the Milton area.

“We absolutely share their concern,” ANR Secretary Julie Moore told VTDigger. “We have and will continue to look at steps that can be taken to avoid significant impacts to all non-target species in the Lamoille River.”

But the federal agency has shown no sign of reconsidering the plan, which is aimed at eliminating sea lampreys. The parasitic fish species attaches to Atlantic salmon and trout, causing wounds to the fish, which are prized by anglers.

“This is all in service of reducing wounding rates on sports fish,” Moore said. 

The program is working, but hasn’t reached targets yet. That’s why U.S. Fish and Wildlife is continuing to treat Vermont waterways. Lampricide is typically applied on a four-year schedule, and the 2020 permit authorizes another application in 2024.

Conservationists agree that the lampricide treatment benefits trout, salmon and sturgeon, but worry about other species that will be hurt. They’re concerned that the program benefits recreational fishing at the expense of other species.

That’s not the case, said Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter.

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“We have an obligation to manage for all species, and we do that,” Porter said.

Studying the mudpuppy

While the lampricide permit originally required a population-level assessment of mudpuppies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife refused to proceed with the treatment unless that requirement was removed.

In a letter Oct. 9, Secretary Moore agreed to drop the requirement for an assessment, reiterating the ANR’s support of the Sea Lamprey Control Program, which began in 2002.

Mudpuppy. Image from Wikipedia
Mudpuppy image from Wikipedia.

Moore told VTDigger that she removed the requirement because U.S. Fish and Wildlife had concerns “about the scope of the work that would be required” to do the assessment, and “their ability to do it in a statistically valid manner.”

Mudpuppies are rare salamanders that can grow up to 16 inches long, but they are reclusive. They are hard to find and trap, which would have to happen in a population-level assessment.

Still, Moore said the lack of data on mudpuppies is a concern. 

“This absence of data is really challenging,” she said, and ANR is committed to “doing some of that work” to get more data. While the Vermont Endangered Species Committee has made three recommendations that mudpuppies be listed as threatened species, Moore says not enough is known about the species to grant the designation. 

Porter, the state fish and wildlife commissioner, agreed it would be difficult to get a “scientifically rigorous population estimate of mudpuppy.” 

He wondered “whether the best thing to do is spend money and resources and time on doing the project that we’re engaged with now to move them upstream.”

Relocation efforts began in the spring, but only ran for two weeks before they were interrupted due to Covid.  In that time, two dozen mudpuppies were moved upstream of the Peterson Dam, where they won’t be affected by lampricide treatments. Relocation efforts are partially funded by the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

Two ways to read the data

While the relocation will spare some mudpuppies, conservationists insist that a population-level study is essential.

According to Ira Powsner, who penned the petition, a study would have been a step in resolving disagreements that date back to 2013, when lampricide was again applied after a large die-off four years earlier. In 2013, fewer than 10 mudpuppies were found dead. Some accounts say the number was as low as one or two salamanders.

Two competing theories aim to explain the drastic decrease in mudpuppy death toll. 

One explanation is that the application of lampricide has improved and did not harm or kill mudpuppies. 

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But others fear that the fact that dead mudpuppies had not surfaced indicated that the population had dwindled, or was even gone from the treated rivers entirely.

“Without knowing what the data is, how do you know whether you decimated the population in the first die-off?” said Powsner, who works with mudpuppies and other aquatic animals and salamanders at the ECHO Museum in Burlington.

The Lamoille River flows below the Peterson Dam in Milton on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be applying lampricide to this stretch of the river on Oct. 27. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Jim Andrews, a herpetologist and chair of the Reptile Scientific advisory, has been speaking out about this issue for over a decade. Both Andrews and Powsner point to the Lewis Creek, where, they say, no mudpuppies have been found since treatments in 1990 and 1994. The creek rises in Starksboro and flows into Lake Champlain in Ferrisburg.

“We’ve used two other techniques to find them in Lewis Creek,” said Andrews, “and we can’t find them.” He says U.S. Fish and Wildlife should take responsibility for a population-level assessment.

“If we look at conservation principles, we really would like to see people who are requesting permits to put pesticides in public waters or public air should be the ones who have the responsibility of showing what they’re going to do is safe, that it doesn’t have lethal impacts,” Andrews said.

“In this case, this program doesn’t have the studies available to show that,” he said.

Porter said he does not believe lampricide is affecting the population of mud puppies. “If we thought it was, we would not support the treatments,” he said.

Is the study feasible?

Moore said questions remain about whether Fish and Wildlife could carry out a study. Andrews was unconvinced.

“They can certainly do a population assessment,” he said. “To do that right, they would not treat this year.”

According to Andrews, a study done by a UVM graduate student named Isaac Chellman identified an effective way of finding and trapping mudpuppies.

“You can do a mark and recapture program and come up with estimates of population. But the best way to do that is over the period of a few years,” Andrews said.

Ideally, that process would collect data for three or four years before the lampricide is applied. Then, more data could be collected after the treatment to gain a better understanding of the impact on mudpuppy populations.

“Surely, we can leave one river untreated,” the petition reads. But state officials don’t agree. “If you leave one river untreated, it becomes a nursery for lamprey production,” Porter said.

The Lamoille is one of many Vermont rivers that are treated with lampricide. Quebec does not allow the use of lampricide, and efforts have been made along border waters, such as Moripon Creek, to use traps and barriers to prevent lamprey from spawning.

Biologists from Vermont Fish and Wildlife will coordinate mudpuppy rescue efforts when the lampricide is applied on Tuesday. Powsner is organizing a peaceful mudpuppy demonstration at the site.

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Amanda Gokee

About Amanda

Amanda is a graduate of Harvard University, where she majored in romance language and literature, with a secondary focus on global health. She grew up in Vermont and is working on a master’s degree in liberal studies at Dartmouth with a concentration in creative writing.

Email: [email protected]

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