Two fish conservation organizations and their lawyers announced today that the federal government has agreed to determine, once and for all, whether the Santa Ana sucker fish deserves protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The sucker, once common throughout the Los Angeles basin, has dwindled significantly in numbers owing to loss of habitat to development and water diversions. Small populations survive in the headwaters of the San Gabriel River in the Angeles National Forest, Big Tujunga Creek, and the Santa Ana River. A small introduced population inhabits the Santa Clara River.
Under the agreement, filed in federal court today as part of ongoing litigation, the Fish and Wildlife Service will announce by January 15, 1999, whether the species is threatened, endangered, or neither. The agency further agreed to publish its final decision by January 15, 2000, after a public comment period.
If the fish is listed as threatened or endangered, it could lead, among other possibilities, to limitations on suction gold mining in the Angeles National Forest, redesign of a new golf course planned for the Tujunga Wash of the Los Angeles River, and reconsideration of applications to renew the licenses of hydroelectric facilities on the Santa Ana River.
The agreement settles a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund on behalf of California Trout and the California-Nevada Chapter of the American Fisheries Society seeking to force the agency to act on a petition submitted to it in 1994 seeking the listing of the species. In 1997 the service announced that listing the sucker was "warranted but precluded." In other words, the fish is in serious trouble and deserves protection but won't get it because the agency doesn't have enough money to protect all deserving species and other species are in more immediate danger.
"It is a sad truth that we do not have the resources to save all disappearing species," said Claudia Polsky, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund attorney. "The essence of successful triage, however, is knowing which patients to send to the emergency room. This agreement should bring desperately needed relief for the sucker. It is a species that can be rescued with enough effort. Now, that effort should be forthcoming."
Jim Edmondson of CalTrout added, "If the native fish can't live in our local rivers, then is the water safe to drink?"
And Camm Swift, past president of the California-Nevada Chapter of the American Fisheries Society said, "The Santa Ana sucker is a unique and interesting component of southern California's inland aquatic environment. It has barely survived the development of land and water, and has become the latest casualty of the near disappearance of riparian habitat in the region, joining the Bell's vireo, the southern red-legged frog, and other species that are nearly gone. The sucker and future generations of Californians will both benefit from the habitat protections a federal listing can provide.
Claudia Polsky, Earthjustice, 415-627-6725
Jim Edmondson, 805-584-9248
Camm Swift, 626-447-5846
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