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U.S. Declares Some West Coast Steelhead Trout Threatened

Wildlife: Protection affects California's Central Valley and parts of Washington and Oregon, including Portland.

March 14, 1998|From Associated Press

MEDFORD, Ore. — The federal government Friday declared populations of steelhead trout threatened species in California's Central Valley and in the lower Columbia River region of Oregon and Washington.

Noting steps taken by the states to protect and restore steelhead habitat, the National Marine Fisheries Service declined to list populations in the Klamath Mountains region straddling the Oregon-California border, Northern California and the Oregon coast.

The listings are the latest in a series of federal steps to protect the West Coast's anadromous fish--those that live in the ocean but return to fresh water to spawn.

In August, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed steelhead in Southern California as endangered, meaning they are considered at risk of becoming extinct in the near future. Steelhead on the central and south-central California coast were listed as threatened, meaning they are likely to become endangered in the near future.

Last month, in what could prove to be the most significant impact yet of the Endangered Species Act, the fisheries service proposed to protect runs of chinook salmon, whose habitat includes metropolitan areas of Washington, Oregon and California.

"Extinction is not an option," Terry Garcia, the U.S. Department of Commerce assistant secretary for oceans and atmosphere, said. "We are committed irrevocably and unconditionally to that principle.

"But we're also committed to protecting and restoring steelhead and other salmon in the most efficient, least disruptive way possible. The responsibility for species conservation doesn't exist solely with the federal government. The states can be part of the solution."

The listing of steelhead in the lower Columbia River and its tributaries brings the Endangered Species Act into the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area for the first time.

"Whether it is land development, water treatment or what have you, they are going to have to take the fish into account now as part of their planning processes," said fisheries service spokesman Rob Jones.

Oregon and California took steps to prevent a listing in the Klamath Mountains region by instituting new fishing restrictions, such as making some rivers catch-and-release and limiting the catch in others. The two states also adopted plans to protect and restore habitat.

"The cause for celebration today is not the fact that the fisheries service decided not to list, but rather that we have in place a restoration plan," said Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Prized as sport fish, steelhead are anadromous rainbow trout. Born in freshwater streams, they migrate to the sea to mature, then return to their native rivers to spawn. Unlike salmon, they can spawn more than once.

Like salmon, they have suffered from decades of human-caused damage to their spawning streams.

Dams have blocked access to the rivers where steelhead lay their eggs. Logging, road building and development have stripped the trees that keep streams cool enough for young steelhead to survive.

Clear-cutting along the banks has eliminated the woody, debris-filled hiding places that fish need and led to erosion that clogs streams with silt. Water pumping for irrigation and dam releases has changed river flows and temperatures.

Will Stelle, Northwest regional director for the fisheries service, said all these factors in steelhead declines will be addressed through either federal or state action.

"This is not just some administrative decision or bureaucratic process," Stelle said. "This is a life-or-death struggle to save a legendary species of fish we are charged with protecting."

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