Greens Fight USA to Save Dwindling Fish

MEDFORD, Ore. (CN) – Federal grazing permits on 10 tracts of land in the Klamath River Basin threaten critical habitat for two species of endangered fish, environmentalists claim in court.
     Oregon Wild, Friends of Living Oregon Waters and Western Watersheds Project sued the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday in Federal Court.
     They claim the grazing permits in the Clear Lake Reservoir threaten conservation efforts for the Lost River sucker and the shortnose sucker and endangers their critical habitat on federal land.
     Lost River suckers, also known as mullet, are large ray-finned fish, native to the Upper Klamath Basin. Characterized by long snouts, dark sides and whitish-yellow underbellies, Lost River suckers can grow up to 34 inches long and live for more than 40 years. They prefer deep lakes and feed on zooplankton and other invertebrates.
     The shortnose sucker is also native to the Klamath River Basin. It has a large head and fleshy lips, can grow up to half a meter long, and live for up to 33 years. It prefers shallow, alkaline lakes and spawns in streams and flowing rivers, as does the Lost River sucker.
     The Klamath River flows 263 miles from the Oregon Cascades through Southwest Oregon and Northern California. It is California’s second-largest river, by flow, after the Sacramento. It drains nearly 16,000 square miles in Klamath, Lake and Jackson Counties in Oregon and parts of Del Norte, Humboldt, Modoc, Siskiyou and Trinity Counties in California.
     The Klamath River Basin encompasses several smaller watersheds, including the Lost River, Willow, and Gerber Reservoirs, which are home to the Lost River and shortnose sucker. The area is dry, receiving around 30 inches of rain a normal year, and has been hit hard by drought.
     Clear Lake Reservoir is formed by the Clear Lake Dam on the Lost River and is in Modoc National Forest and Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Modoc County, Calif. At capacity, it holds 527,000 acre feet of water.
     Both sucker species were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in July 1988 “after dams, diversions, and dredging had reduced their range and numbers by 95 percent,” the complaint states.
     The species also have suffered from loss of spawning and adult habitats, overfishing, and deteriorating water quality. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 2013 that Lost River suckers have declined to 65,000-115,000 individuals, while there are less than 60,000 shortnose suckers, according to the complaint.
     Fish and Wildlife proposed critical habitat for the two species in December 1994, but the rule was not finalized until December 2012. Though it established less critical habitat than proposed in 1994, the 2012 rule “still designated 1,881 acres of critical habitat in the streams on the Fremont-Winema National Forest,” the complaint states.
     Among other things, the rule noted that sucker conservation depends on their access to clean water of sufficient depth, improved water flow rates and access to streams with gravel or rocky substrates for spawning.
     The environmentalists say that one of the biggest threats to sucker conservation is livestock grazing in the Klamath Basin. Grazing degrades critical sucker habitat by, among other things, removing riparian vegetation, which increases water temperature; reducing water flow rates; increasing soil compaction and erosion; destabilizing streambeds; and contaminating the water with urine and feces.
     In 2007, Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service consulted under the Endangered Species Act and prepared a biological assessment of the impacts of livestock grazing on 10 allotments in critical sucker habitat. Despite acknowledging that grazing degrades sucker habitat, the assessment allowed grazing to continue, claiming it claimed could be mitigated through a six-step monitoring plan.
     Seven years later, the agencies released a similar assessment with similar conclusions about the effects of grazing on newly designated critical habitat for suckers, and re-authorized the practice through the 2016 grazing season.
     The environmentalist claim these assessments are defective because they make assumptions about the impacts of grazing rather than relying on hard data, and rely on a flawed monitoring scheme that cannot ease the harm grazing poses to sucker critical habitat.
     They call an environmental assessment prepared by the Forest Service in 2009 similarly defective because it did not analyze the cumulative impacts of livestock grazing with other threats to sucker conservation, such as upstream water diversion, and did not analyze the effects of water withdrawals and other water manipulations on water quality and quantity.
     And, the groups say, the agencies shirked their duty to reinitiate consultation despite gaining new information on to the effects of grazing, such as worsening conditions in riparian areas and failure to meet monitoring requirements in the six-step plan.
     They claim that allowing grazing to continue in critical sucker habitat despite flawed habitat consultations and ample evidence that grazing threatens sucker conservation efforts violates the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Administrative Procedures Act, and threatens the continued existence of the Lost River and shortnose sucker.
     Laurie Sada with Fish and Wildlife told Courthouse News that the agency does not comment on pending litigation, and has not yet received the complaint.
     The Forest Service could not be reached for comment Thursday.
     The environmentalists want the court to declare the agencies in violation of NEPA and the ESA, to vacate the environmental studies and grazing authorizations, a declaration that the agencies failed to protect sucker habitat from “adverse modification,” and to order the agencies to do their job and reinstitute consultation on the effects of grazing on sucker habitat.
     They are represented by Lauren M. Rule with Advocates for the West of Portland, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

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