A federal judge in Idaho has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider whether the Big Lost River mountain whitefish deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act.
On Tuesday, March 31, Idaho Federal District Court Judge Edward Lodge ruled in favor of fisheries advocates when he ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to complete a full status review of the genetically distinct species of whitefish.
The court order resulted from litigation brought by Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project in response to the Fish and Wildlife Service's earlier refusal to consider ESA protections for the fish, a freshwater member of the salmonid family.
"This legal victory is another step toward long-overdue protection for this very special native fish," said Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds Project's executive director.
A move by the federal government to confer ESA protections on the Big Lost River mountain whitefish could lead to restrictions on activities like grazing and irrigation in the arid basin on the east side of the Pioneer Mountains.
While mountain whitefish are distributed throughout much of the western United States and Canada, the Big Lost River drainage population is considered to be an endemic, or genetically divergent subspecies, a fisheries biologist on the Salmon-Challis National Forest, Bart Gamett, said in 2007. Gamett works out of the forest's Lost River Ranger District headquarters in Mackay.
Gamett said that based on DNA research, it's believed that the Big Lost River mountain whitefish moved into the river system some 165,000 to 330,000 years ago.
The Big Lost River is an isolated "sinks" watershed that disappears into the northern Snake River Plain and has no surface connection to any other river.
According to the Western Watersheds Project, Big Lost River whitefish have been reduced to 2 percent of their historic numbers and 20 percent of their historic habitat. The group claims that dewatering of streams for agricultural irrigation, non-native fish introduction, habitat degradation associated with livestock grazing and disease are the primary threats to the imperiled fish.
In his order, Lodge ruled that in making its initial 90-day determination on whether the whitefish "may be" eligible for ESA listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service had illegally consulted information outside of that provided in Western Watershed Project's petition or already existing in its files. He ruled that the agency must wait for the "full status review," which includes public comment, to do that.
Lodge ruled that once having solicited outside information, the agency must now proceed with full status review to determine whether to list the whitefish, which can take up to a year to complete.
This isn't the first attention that's been paid to the interesting subspecies of fish. Among those concerned with its plight is the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which approved a recovery plan for the fish in 2007.
Last October, Trout Unlimited joined Fish and Game and several other groups in retrofitting three irrigation diversion dams on the Big Lost with fish-passage structures to reconnect fish populations on several reaches of the river. Heavy equipment operators positioned large boulders and concrete barriers to create passage structures for the fish.
Jason Kauffman: firstname.lastname@example.org