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Saving the sucker

How the fish was listed as endangered

By JILL AHO, Herald and News 9/13/09
KBC NOTE: "In 1986 the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff responsible for whether or not to pursue these (ESA) listings believed there were only 12,000 Lost River suckers in Upper Klamath Lake...they didn't believe they were endangered. A couple years later...we now know for a fact that number's exceeded by tens of thousands of Lost River suckers. Now they flip flop and say they are endangered. What constitutes endangered? David Vogel, fisheries scientist with 29 years experience, 14 years working for the Fish and Wildlife Service."

Submitted photo Lost River suckers were listed as an endangered species in 1988.

The Lost River and shortnose suckers joined the list of endangered species when notice was published July 18, 1988, in the Federal Register.

It had been 18 years since any significant increase was recorded in sucker populations in Upper Klamath Lake.

When the Klamath Basin was a sprawling wetland and floodplain, with more than 350,000 acres of potential habitat for the sucker, the fish lived in many areas connected by the Klamath River and its tributaries. Dams were erected, irrigation channels dug and wetlands drained, altering the landscape and reducing the habitat and connectivity of that habitat throughout the watershed, according to the Federal Register.


Concern about the health of these fish prompted collection efforts and documentation. It was estimated, based on spawning run counts, that 23,123 Lost River suckers were living in Upper Klamath Lake in 1984. By 1985, that population had declined to an estimated 11,861.

In 1984, 2,650 individual shortnose suckers were estimated to live in the lake. In 1985 and 1986 there were too few shortnose suckers found during the spawning run to estimate how many were left.


The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in August 1987 listing the shortnose and Lost River suckers as endangered species. Public notice throughout the region garnered just 13 comments, and none opposed listing the fish.

The criteria for listing a species under the Endangered Species Act include: The presence or threatened destruction, modification or curtailment of its habitat or range; overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific or education purposes; disease or predation; inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and other natural or man made factors affecting its continued existence.

The determination that added the sucker to the Endangered Species list was based on a limited amount of existing data about the fish and its decline. “Causes of the decline are varied and not fully understood,” it states. “Clearly, there has been a drastic reduction in spawning success.”

Spawning grounds

One thing was certain. A dam upstream of the confluence of the Sprague and Williamson rivers near Chiloquin likely eliminated 95 percent of the fish’s spawning grounds, according to the Federal Register listing, and fish ladders placed on the Sprague River dam did little to aid in fish passage.

The dam was removed last year to increase the upstream spawning habitat available to suckers from Upper Klamath Lake. It is believed the dam’s removal will provide as much as 80 miles of spawning grounds, according to the Federal Register listing.

Side Bar

Where the sucker makes its home

The endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers can be found in Upper Klamath Lake and its tributaries: Williamson River, Sprague River, Sycan River, Wood River, Crooked Creek and Crystal Creek. Suckers also can be found in Tule Lake and its tributaries, Lost River and Miller Creek, and in Clear Lake and its tributaries, Willow Creek and Boles Creek.

In addition, suckers have been located in Link River and Lake Ewauna, Keno Reservoir, JC Boyle Reservoir, Copco Reservoir, Iron Gate Reservoir and Gerber Reservoir (shortnose only).

The fish historically lived in Sevenmile Creek, Fourmile Creek, Lake of the Woods, Lower Klamath Lake and Sheepy Creek.

According to the 1988 Federal Register listing, the population of suckers living in Lake of the Woods was lost in 1952 during a fish eradication program aimed at removing carp and perch from the lake.

The populations in Sheepy Lake, Lower Klamath Lake and Tule Lake were lost in 1924 when the lakes were drained for farming. The Lost River suckers living in Clear Lake are the last known population of the species from the Lost River system.

— Information from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service



Critical habitat: Providing safe havens for fish

By Jill Aho, Herald and News 9/13/09

On Dec. 1, 1994, a proposal for designating critical habitat for the endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers was published in the Federal Register. Critical habitat is defined as all areas essential to the recovery of a species to the point of delisting.

Designating critical habitat is meant to identify areas that have habitat features essential to the recovery of a species, regardless of whether the areas are currently occupied by a species. It makes agencies and the public more aware of the importance of an area, according to information from the Federal Register.

“The idea behind any critical habitat designation is you’re providing a safe haven for listed fish,” said Ani Kame’enui, the Klamath campaign coordinator for Oregon Wild. Oregon Wild sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993 to finish critical habitat designation for the suckers.

“The idea is you’re creating a specific area for this fish that can operate as an area that they will not be adversely affected by their surroundings,” Kame’enui said.

The designation of critical habitat does not, however, automatically prohibit certain actions, establish population goals or prescribe specific management actions. It can potentially increase knowledge about a species’ needs by focusing research efforts within the critical habitats. The designation affects solely federally issued permits and federally funded projects.

Included in the proposal were portions of both current and historic habitat for the sucker. Because water quality and quantity are part of critical habitat, areas affecting water quality were included. Sites such as Pelican Bay, which provides a refuge for the fish during times of poor water quality, and areas within 300 feet of either bank of streams known to be used by suckers, would fall under this provision.

The areas identified for inclusion are Clear Lake and its watershed, Tule Lake and the Lost River, the Klamath River from Iron Gate Dam up to the Link River Dam, Upper Klamath Lake and its watershed (excluding Williamson and Sprague rivers, but including Agency Lake), the Williamson and Sprague rivers extending from the mouth of the Williamson River and up the Sprague River to its confluence with Brown Creek and Gerber Reservoir and its watershed. Excluded are the Bureau of Reclamation canals.

“We haven’t seen the final designation, but there was some thought that the final might be slightly smaller than the proposed critical habitat,” Kame’enui said.

Mark Buettner, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the finalization is likely to occur after the recovery plan is finished, perhaps in 2012.

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