Neton: The fish speaketh
All societies and cultures throughout history have embraced an animal, landmark, or even a plant or food as a cultural icon. These icons speak to people about the land they inhabit, their history, their present lives, and the unknown future.
In an interesting essay on these ideas, historian Elliot West examines the bison as a unique icon of the entire West. His ideas got me thinking about Moffat County, a remote and hidden gem on the cusp of tremendous changes. Do we have a cultural icon that is solely ours? I believe we do … but, this animal is not an obvious nor very loveable creature, though he does speak to us about our lives, land, and history.
Is it the elk? A strong frontrunner, yes; the elk is beautiful, majestic, strong, and attracts thousands in the hopes of carrying it home in neat frozen white paper packages. But the elk is not uniquely ours; he’s too common across the whole continent, too loved by everyone else. The elk is part of us, but a monster 300-point bull is not solely ours to treasure.
Possibly, the Yampa River? Our Nile-like ribbon of life winds through the high desert, provides life, and clings to natural cycles. Yet its mystical and mythical qualities have been pushed aside, and she is now eyed as an economic driver to substitute for our fading energy economy.
Maybe the always-popular cowboy? We rightly treasure the history of the ruffians of Brown’s Park, the large cattle barons, and the free life the cowboy represents. However, in the cancel culture era the cowboy can carry quite a bit of historical and cultural baggage. Unfortunately, we have to look elsewhere.
Over the past few weeks I was reluctantly forced to consider and finally realize the Colorado Pikeminnow (formerly identifying itself as the Squawfish) as the bona fide icon of Northwest Colorado. Before you roll your eyes, grind your teeth, and curse loudly, please hear me out.
According to Elliot West, the entire Western USA contained a double meaning as a land to be conquered and as a romantic and untrammeled vision of nature. The Pikeminnow is a metaphor for this idea. Once plentiful in the West and free to follow its long lifecycle up and down winding stretches of untouched, free-flowing rivers, it is now endangered and limited to the upper tributaries of the Colorado River.
Over its long life cycle, the pikeminnow grew big, was an apex predator, and fed struggling homesteaders. But in the age of development and dams, the pikeminnow was forced to retreat into the remote Yampa. From apex to nuisance, in 1962 the stretch of the Green River from Flaming Gorge down to the Yampa was poisoned with rotenone to make room for more attractive non-native fish.
Conversely, the forces that hurt the Pikeminnow helped Moffat County flourish through ranching, homesteading, oil and gas drilling, coal mining, and the eventual creation of a power plant.
Now in the modern age of environmentalism, there is a trend to maintain Moffat County as a last vestige of the West that once was. Our endangered fish is the trigger for keeping the Yampa free of dams and represents the encroachment of modern values and views into Moffat County.
Ironically, the values and views working to save the Pikeminnow have put Moffat County under pressure. Federal and state regulations have forced our economy and lifestyle to retreat. Our coal mines and power plants are slated to shut down. Concern for the greater sage grouse has limited gas and oil drilling. Urbanites have foisted upon us the reintroduction of the grey wolf. At least Initiative 16 was sidelined.
Like the Pikeminnow, we have been squeezed and pushed by outside forces demonizing our honest blue-collar work … our pain is the Pikeminnow’s pain. And like the Colorado Pikeminnow we are threatened by more aggressive outsiders moving into our territory.
The Pikeminnow and Moffat County are simultaneously endangered, and this should create a kinship, a joining of hand and fin, so to speak. The Pikeminnow needs help to survive, and likewise we have been offered a euphemistic “Just Transition” to survive the end of our energy economy.
Here is where our relationship with the pikeminnow becomes problematic. The state of Colorado has rushed in to shock and euthanize the non-native northern pike and smallmouth bass (but not the non-native rainbow trout). We have come to loathe the native pikeminnow and love the outsiders, the pike and the smallmouth bass.
Forced to strike a new path, we are dealing with a loss of confidence and paralysis, and we dislike ourselves just as we dislike our fellow native Pikeminnow. The northern pike of change is bearing down on us with bared teeth, yet we are slow to adapt and fear getting swallowed up by the inevitable.
All of this and more makes the not very sexy or likable Colorado Pikeminnow a perfect fit as our cultural icon. Like us, he’s endangered, needs to evolve, and embodies our conflicted future. Let us embrace the Colorado Pikeminnow, and let us embrace ourselves. The damn fish is us.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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On a summer morning in southern Idaho, the day breaks early, before 6 a.m. The air is stale, never fully cooled from the heat of the day before.