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California's State Fish Considered for U.S. Endangered Species List

September 21, 2002|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long swimming in troubled waters, the California state fish is being considered for inclusion on the federal endangered species list, officials say.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday that it will conduct a 12-month study on what protections should be made for the California golden trout, a brilliant gold and red-orange-colored fish with a deep olive-green back that has been a state symbol since 1947.

The federal study, which could determine that the trout should be listed as "threatened" or "endangered," is part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed in November by Trout Unlimited, a conservation group that accused the government of failing to protect the fish from crossbreeding, habitat destruction from cattle grazing and other disturbances.

Naturalists hope the endangered designation will result in state and federal funding efforts to keep nonnative fish from crossbreeding with the golden trout, as well as developing methods to preserve the trout's habitat.

The only pure strain of wild California golden trout is found in just two mountain streams in the Inyo National Forest in Tulare County.

Its "genetic integrity" has been diluted by years of "careless stocking of nonnative" breeds such as rainbow and brown trout, activists say. Look-alikes are found in many streams around the state, but they are hybrids.

Trout Unlimited spokesman Allan Moore said Friday that he was relieved by the government's decision.

"When a species gets to this point, there's nothing to celebrate," he said. "We're pleased people recognize that this species merits some kind of protection to stave off its extinction."

There are 517 species of animals and 743 species of plants on the list, created by the federal Endangered Species Act. In addition, there are 71 domestic fish and 11 foreign species included on the endangered list.

Ordered by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a 90-day review of evidence presented by Trout Unlimited, and as a result has decided to further study the matter.

"We have found in a review of the science and in talking with other agencies and stakeholders that there is substantial evidence suggesting that this listing may be warranted," said spokesman Jim Nickles.

Before agency officials decide to push for an endangered listing for the golden trout, they also must seek public comment.

Trout Unlimited requested an endangered listing for the golden trout in 2000 but did not hear from the government.

"We're disinclined to litigate," Moore said. "But we were left with no options."

Jacob Martin, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, said the agency is so strapped for funds that it can't pay attention to all worthy causes in a timely manner.

"We would have liked to have put out a finding a long time ago," he said. "But there is so much going on with us, some things just don't get done on time."

Officials said the California golden trout, a subspecies of the rainbow trout, did not have its habitat frozen over in the most recent ice age.

"Isolated for eons, this species has evolved distinct characteristics, such as its unique color," Martin said.

Now the species is native to just the south fork of the Kern River and Golden Trout Creek, in the rugged Eastern Sierra just south of Mt. Whitney. The species is secure in less than 5% of its original habitat, officials estimate.

"What's most striking is that the range of this fish has been reduced to this small dot up in the rugged Sierra," Moore said. "And to us, that's worth protecting."

Livestock grazing continues to damage habitat. Despite the removal in 2001 of cattle owned by beer maker Anheuser-Busch, other herds remain in the area. "It's still a big problem," said Scott Yates, director of Trout Unlimited's western native trout program.

Introduced nonnative trout have bred with the golden trout, and if the crossbreeding pattern continues, the species will be hybridized. In a practice experts call "bucket biology," nonnative fish and eggs from the Western Sierra have been transplanted by recreational fishermen to the golden trout's habitat.

In the wild, the fish--which grow to 7 or 8 inches--have struggled to survive, because their brighter coloring betrays them to predators.

Fish hatcheries--introduced in recent generations to increase the number of catchable fish for High Sierra outdoor enthusiasts--pose the greatest threat of hybridization.

"The hatchery process is an ongoing experiment, and we're learning that it can be, at times, a tremendous hindrance to nature," Moore said. "More isn't always better."

Responded Nickles, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: "Our priorities are different now than they were 30 years ago, when we wanted to increase fishing in many outlying areas."

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