Groups Sue to Protect Lampreyby Erik Robinson
The Columbian, May 27, 2004
Environmental groups on Wednesday sued the Bush administration, hoping to cajole the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to consider a year-old petition to list West Coast lamprey as threatened or endangered.
Organizers say dwindling numbers of four West Coast lamprey species highlight the deteriorating health of river habitat the lamprey shares with imperiled stocks of salmon and steelhead. The lamprey, in fact, serves as a prey buffer for wild salmon, diverting the attention of predatory sea lions.
"If we lose lamprey, we change the ecology," said Wendell Wood, a field representative for Oregon Natural Resources Council, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "Usually those changes are things that are also going to degrade our water quality and all the things we care about."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, charges the agency violated the Endangered Species Act and Administrative Procedures Act by failing to promptly consider the lamprey petition filed by environmental groups in January of 2003.
Environmental groups want the government to list the Pacific, river and western brook lamprey in Washington and Oregon, as well as the Kern brook lamprey in California.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists based in Vancouver have been studying Pacific lamprey spawning in Cedar Creek in north Clark County since 2000. They're trying to determine the size of the local population, along with factors that help or hinder its productivity.
Though Fish & Wildlife Service spokeswoman Jenny Valdivia said the agency does not comment on litigation, the agency has embarked on several research projects involving lamprey.
"Sometimes listing is not the best answer, if it can be avoided," she noted.
With the Bush administration set to announce a new policy equating wild salmon with their hatchery-raised cousins -- potentially leading to delisting of salmon bolstered by ample hatchery populations -- environmentalists say protecting lampreys may be the last best chance to conserve the natural habitat on which both creatures rely.
Lamprey need clean, cool water to spawn successfully. They also have had a hard time ascending fish ladders designed for salmon.
Biologists generally accept that lamprey numbers have declined in the Columbia River basin, although official fish counts at Bonneville Dam have been hindered by two major obstacles: Lamprey tend to migrate at night, after human fish counters have gone home, and they tend to drift back and forth through the fish ladders, making it hard to sort out lamprey passing by the counting stations more than once.
The official count at Bonneville has bounced around: 379,000 in 1969, 19,000 in 2000 and 117,027 last year.
Previously: On Jan. 27, 2003, environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to list four species of West Coast lamprey as threatened or endangered. Three months later, the agency announced it didn't have the money to act on the petition.
What's new: Environmental groups this week sued Interior Secretary Gale Norton, asking a judge to order her agency to consider the lamprey petition.
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