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Endangered Species Act at work in Klamath basin

By Peter B. Moyle and Jeffrey F. Mount -- Special to The Bee
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Sunday, December 28, 2003

The controversy over water and endangered fish in the Klamath River basin has been, and will continue to be, touted as an example of all that is wrong with the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Critics claim that the act allowed federal agencies to use biased studies, ignore rights and needs of farmers, and even list species that were not in jeopardy.

We have news for the critics. In the Klamath basin the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is working as intended when President Nixon signed it into law 30 years ago today. This is one important conclusion that can be drawn from the final report of National Research Council's Committee on Threatened and Endangered Fishes of the Klamath basin, which was issued in October. We were members of the committee.

The Klamath basin grabbed headlines in 2001 when federal agencies cut water to farmers to help endangered fish. The agencies' biologists claimed their studies indicated that the fish required higher levels in Upper Klamath Lake and higher flows down the Klamath River than were scheduled. The farmers claimed that the agencies' actions were not justified scientifically and that the agencies were abusing their powers under the ESA. The National Research Council was called in to resolve the dispute by looking at the scientific bases for the agency decisions.

We found that in fact the higher lake levels and flows did not have a strong scientific basis, at least for protecting the listed species. However, we credited federal biologists for using the best information they had available at the time and rejected claims they were using "junk science," as some members of Congress claimed.

The ESA is an unequivocal statement by the American people that no native species should be allowed to go extinct and that the best way to ensure this is to protect the environments in which the species live. In the Klamath basin, the ESA-listed species of contention are two sucker fish and the coho salmon. The suckers, once a major food source for the Indian tribes, require healthy lakes and rivers in the upper basin. The coho, once important to both tribal and commercial fishers, require healthy cold-water streams in the lower basin.

The problems in the Klamath basin in the drought-stricken summer of 2001 were not created by the ESA. Rather, conflict turned into crisis because basin stakeholders on all sides took entrenched, unyielding positions.

At the center of the controversy were two understaffed agencies charged with implementing the ESA: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the face of limited available information, these agencies were required by the act to save the listed species in the basin using their best professional judgment.

Contrary to public perception, the National Research Council report supported most of the recommendations put forward by these agencies and recognized that they behaved responsibly under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. We disagreed with them only on the most contentious issues of water supply. However, peculiarities of water quality and the life histories of these fish have made for the unusual condition where more water will not necessarily improve conditions for them.

Our report recommended taking a broader approach, focusing on restoring habitats and ecosystems. We recommended actions that would benefit not only listed fish, but also others in jeopardy, such as most of the native fish of the upper basin, species found nowhere else on Earth. These actions also would benefit the many sea-run fishes of the lower basin, including runs of steelhead, Chinook salmon, cutthroat trout, green sturgeon, lampreys and eulachon.

Solutions in the Klamath basin are going to be complex, expensive and take a long time to implement. They will require removing dams, restoring forestlands and marshes, modifying hatchery operations and changing agricultural practices. Most important, they will require cooperation between agencies and stakeholders.

But the potential ecological and economic benefits of such actions are enormous, particularly if they avoid future listings of endangered species.

The findings of our report also illustrate the weaknesses of the ESA as a conservation tool. It is first and foremost an act of last resort, intended to pull species back from the brink of extinction. The fault does not lie in the act itself, but in the failure to develop policies that seek to avoid listings.

Just as the American public intended when it was passed 30 years ago, the Endangered Species Act compels all players to come to the table and gives us a place to start working on solutions. It has accomplished this in the Klamath basin.


About the Writer

Peter B. Moyle and Jeffrey F. Mount are professors at the University of California, Davis. Moyle is author of "Inland Fishes of California" and can be reached at pbmoyle@ucdavis.edu. Mount is author of "California Rivers and Streams" and can be reached at jfmount@ucdavis.edu.





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