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Conservationists Take Action to Protect Water and Threatened Wildlife


Eugene, OR   Twelve conservation organizations in Oregon, California and Washington have filed a lawsuit in federal District Court to require the US Fish & Wildlife Service, under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), to take the legally required steps to protect four species of lampreys as threatened or endangered.

"The beloved bald eagle is still on this earth because of the protections of the Endangered Species Act", said Penny Lind, Executive Director for Umpqua Watersheds. "While these lamprey are some of Oregon's least charismatic wildlife, we cannot allow them to slip into extinction. Why? Lamprey tell us about the health of our rivers and streams. All Oregonians need clean water to drink, swim and fish. In protecting the lamprey, we are protecting the precious streams and rivers that make Oregon a great place to live."

On January 27, 2003, a broad coalition of West Coast conservation organizations - concerned about recent, severe declines in population numbers for Pacific lamprey, river lamprey, western brook lamprey, and Kern brook lamprey -- petitioned the Service to list the species as threatened or endangered.

While the lamprey petitioning effort has already increased public and researcher support for protecting the species, to date, the USFWS has failed to make the legally required 90-day and 12-month findings on the petition, most recently informing the petitioners that the agency does not "anticipate making a finding in Fiscal Year 2004." Meanwhile, lamprey populations, and their stream and river habitats continue to decline without the benefit of any ESA protection," Lind said.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to follow straightforward procedural requirements of the Endangered Species Act," said Amy Atwood, of the Western Environmental Law Center, representing the petitioners. "This coalition of conservationists is giving the Service one last chance to meet its responsibilities before they will hold it accountable (for its inexcusable failure to act)."

Lamprey scarcity became a conservation concern in the early 1990s when tribal fish managers, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and other researchers noted that populations of Pacific lamprey were declining to perilously low numbers. Similar to Pacific salmon declines, Pacific lamprey show a dramatic declining trend throughout their range from California to the Columbia River portions of their range.

Counts of Pacific lamprey on the Snake River declined from 50,000 in the early 1960s to less than a thousand during the 1990s. Counts in Oregon on the North Umpqua River declined from 46,785 in 1966 to less than 50 annually since 1995. Counts on the Rogue River ranged from 155 to 2,370 since 1993, but abundance is believed to be much below historic numbers.

"The declines are dramatic, widespread, and troubling, and human impacts to lamprey freshwater habitats have been severe and cumulative," said Rich Nawa, Ecologist for Siskiyou Regional Education Project.

All west coast lamprey species' populations have been heavily impacted by water developments, poor agricultural and forestland management practices, and rapid urbanization of many watersheds," said Jeff Miller, Research Associate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Lamprey are vulnerable to habitat losses due to reduced river flows, water diversions, dredging, streambed scouring, channelization, inadequate protection of stream side vegetation, chemical pollution, and impeded passage due to dams and poorly designed road culverts. Introduction of exotic fish predators, such as smallmouth bass, has also been a factor in the decline of lamprey," Miller said.

"Not all lamprey species migrate to the ocean, nor do all species even prey on other fish, as is commonly misstated," said Wendell Wood, Southern Oregon Field Representative for the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "Information regarding efforts to control non-native sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus), which have caused harm to other fish species in the Great Lakes, has led to unfounded prejudice toward native west coast species. Pacific lamprey have co-adapted with their prey, which can include salmon as well as other marine fish species. Of the four lamprey species being petitioned by conservationists, only the Pacific and river lampreys ever produce adults which prey on other fish during these lampreys' shorter marine life stages," Wood said.

Pacific and river lamprey are primarily concentrated in medium and large sized, slower flowing Pacific streams. Western brook lampreys, from the Sacramento River basin northward into British Columbia, prefer the small tributaries. These fish spend most (or all) of their life in a broad distribution of Pacific coast rivers and streams, except for Kern brook lamprey which are limited to a small portion of the San Joaquin River Basin of California.  Lamprey are an important component of the food web--in one study, making up 11% of Columbia River harbor seals' diets.

The twelve organizations which have given notice of intent to sue are: Umpqua Watersheds, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of the Eel River, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Native Fish Society, Northcoast Environmental Center, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Siskiyou Regional Education Project, Steamboaters, Umpqua Valley Audubon Society, and Washington Trout.

For a copy of the complaint, click here (pdf, 84Kb).

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