In the wondrous world of Oregon wildlife, few things will make you squirm like the Miller Lake lamprey.
The adults look like dark, wiggling worms with circular mounts full of teeth that they use to latch onto fish. At just a couple inches long, they’re the smallest parasitic lampreys in the world.
“There’s much that’s unknown about them,” said Ben Clemens, the lamprey coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They are cryptic. They are weird. People think they look like aliens.”
For decades, they were thought to be extinct, but not as a side effect of something like dams or habitat destruction. On the contrary, in one of its less seemly moments, the state of Oregon tried to exterminate them.
Set in the picturesque Cascades Mountains northeast of Crater Lake, Miller Lake has long been popular with anglers. Back in the 1950s, however, they started to complain that the rainbow trout they caught were coming up with one or more of these icky, blood-sucking critters attached to it.
At the time, the Oregon Game Commission thought the lamprey in the lake was just a dwarf version of the common Pacific lamprey, which once occupied Northwest waters wherever salmon and steelhead could be found. To remove them, the commission dumped barrels of a potent pesticide, toxaphene, into Miller Lake. The chemical, which is now banned worldwide, also killed everything else. It took years before the poison had broken down enough that the commission could restock the lake with trout.
To seal the lake’s fate, crews also built a concrete and metal barrier on Miller Creek below the lake to prevent any surviving lampreys downstream from returning home.
Nobody thought it was that big of a deal until 1973, when one of Oregon’s most prestigious fish experts came across a preserved lamprey specimen from Miller Lake and realized it was an entirely separate lamprey species. He asked the game commission to send him more, and it was only then that they realized their mistake, because they couldn’t find any. The lamprey was presumed extinct.
The Miller Lake lamprey became a textbook case for a paradigm shift happening in Oregon and many other states in the 1970s, where state agencies evolved from managing game animals primarily for hunting and fishing — sometimes to the detriment of non-game animals — to managing all wildlife with an eye toward conservation. In a sign of the times, Oregon’s Fish Commission and Game Commission officially merged into the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1975.
“When I went to Oregon State University, it was taught to me that this was not a good effort,” said Roger Smith, a retired ODFW district fish biologist who spent years in charge of the Miller Lake watershed. “This was an effort that destroyed a unique species and brought it into extinction.”
Then in the 1990s, a curious biologist’s discovery gave the agency a rare chance to right its wrong.
“One of the local Forest Service biologists here had a lamprey hooked onto a brook trout downstream from the barrier,” Smith said. “Once it was identified that Miller Lake lamprey existed, it kind of put the wheels in motion on, ‘Well, shoot, what are we going to do?’”
So Smith and several colleagues drew up a conservation plan for the native lamprey — a first for a non-game fish in Oregon.
“We kept it pretty simple: Maintain good habitat in the areas where it was,” said Stewart Reid, another ODFW fish biologist who was involved with the project. “And we decided it was time to move lampreys from downstream upstream and to bring them into the lake.”
They started by tearing out the barrier, to see if the lampreys would make their way upstream to the lake on their own. When that didn’t work, they decided they’d have to give the lampreys a helping hand, which has now turned into a multi-year project.
Every summer, Reid, Smith, Clemens and a volunteer team of other biologists and their family members head to Miller Lake for a weekend of camping, conversation and lamprey relocation.
They split into teams of three or four and start out by wading through lower Miller Creek searching for lampreys. One person wears a backpack with a mechanical box covered in knobs and gauges that looks like it’s out of “Ghostbusters.” It connects with wires to two long poles. As the researcher moves the poles along the creek bed, the device runs a weak electric charge between them that makes the lampreys uncomfortable enough that they wiggle out of the sand at the bottom of the creek. The biologists call it “the tickler.”
“That’s one thing people never think about when they’re wading around in a creek with their toes in the sand, is that they’re surrounded by lampreys,” Reid said with a devious smile, as a couple lampreys wriggled up between his tickler poles.
Then other team members net the lampreys and deposit them in buckets, which they dump upstream or in the lake.
For fish lovers like Reid, everything that makes lamprey creepy also makes them interesting. They start out life as eyeless juveniles, living in the sand and mud, where they clean the water by eating algae. “They have a very important role in the ecosystem as filters, and also sort of like the earthworms in your garden, they’re turning the bottom of the creek,” he said. “And also they provide a major food resource. Any other fish who can grab a lamprey eats it.”
It’s only when they turn into adults that they grow eyes and teeth and start, in turn, to feed off the fish.
“They keep sucking onto my finger,” said Terry Smith, a retired fish biologist wading the creek with Reid, holding up a lamprey dangling from her index finger that she was trying to transfer from her net into the bucket.
“You’ll want to get it off you before it takes fluids out of you,” joked Reid.
“I don’t feel it. I can see that it’s stuck on my hand, but I don’t feel anything.”
After several years of transporting lampreys to streams that feed the lake, the scientists have found new juveniles there, suggesting that the populations are taking to their new-old homes. But they haven’t yet found any juveniles in the lake itself, which points to the fact that this whole bucket-based relocation effort is an experiment. No one has done it before, so no one knows if it’ll succeed.
“The way this group works is: We all sit around the campfire and we talk,” Reid said. “And I think any visitor to the campfire will be impressed by the glaring level of ignorance that all these fish experts have on lampreys.”
“People are having fun,” Clemens said. “There’s almost no crazy idea that isn’t at least entertained.”
On the final day of their lamprey weekend in September 2019, the team decided to check where one of Miller Lake’s tributaries, Evening Creek, feeds into the lake. Their hope was to find small lampreys there, which would be an indication that relocated lampreys from years past are reproducing.
Clemens wore one tickler as his team waded hip-deep into the lake.
“It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” said Bill Tinniswood, an assistant ODFW district fish biologist, as he followed the tickler with his net, looking for any signs of a small, wriggling lamprey amidst all the floating bric-a-brac.
“It beats the office!” replied Clemens.
Meanwhile, Reid was running a tickler much closer to the stream mouth with his daughter, when he exclaimed, “Hey, we got one!”
Everyone gathered around. Reid pulled up his net and pointed at a small juvenile lamprey. “Little guy!”
“Is this evidence of recolonization of the lake?” asked Clemens. “I would say we don’t have quite enough information to conclude definitively yet, but it’s exciting that maybe they are going into the lake. Let’s keep our finger on the pulse and see what we find.”
Which no doubt means more Miller Lake campouts full of lamprey lovers in the years to come.
“I’m pretty convinced that the only species that ever came back from extinction has been the Miller Lake lamprey,” said Smith. “This is the most exciting thing that I’ve been part of, rediscovery of the animal, seeing success. Within my lifetime, I’m hoping that we see Miller Lake lamprey actually in Miller Lake. It’s going to take some time, but we’re well on our way.”