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U.S. Fails to Protect State Trout, Group Says

September 24, 2003|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

A conservation group on Tuesday served notice that it will sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the agency has failed to respond to a court order directing it to protect the golden trout, the California state fish.

Decades of cattle grazing near Sierra Nevada streams and the longtime practice of stocking different fish species in the same streams have led to the rapid decline of the trout, experts say.

The group Trout Unlimited said the lawsuit was a last-ditch effort to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate the status of the fish and decide whether it belongs on the federal list of threatened and endangered species. The organization has been petitioning the Fish and Wildlife Service for three years to do more to protect the fish.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act. The agency announced earlier this year that it lack funds to consider any more species for listing, saying that its resources are drained by constant lawsuits.

"We do this with more sorrow than anger," said Chuck Bonham, of Trout Unlimited's California office. "Their policy seems to be that they won't do anything until they are sued. The money spent on litigation -- if you would apply it to conservation measures -- we'd all be further toward our end goal."

The golden trout is native to the Sierra Nevada range, where many years of cattle grazing destroyed stream banks and removed vegetation that provided cover for the fish and regulated water temperature.

The fish also suffered from overzealous stocking of the region's rivers and streams. Non-native species such as rainbow and brown trout were introduced into the same waterways. The resultant interbreeding, called hybridization, compromised the gene pool for the golden trout and has made recovery of the pure species difficult.

"It's been breeding itself out of existence," said Harold Werner, biologist at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, where several trout species are found.

Adam Zerrenner, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency has been working with the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Fish and Game to help the trout.

He said that at least two measures are being used to prevent interbreeding. One method relies on installing dam-like barriers on sections of rivers where non-native trout mingle with golden trout. Another is for Fish and Game officers to remove exotic fish from rivers and streams and relocate them.

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