In the fall of 2000, Trout Unlimited petitioned the USFWS to list the California golden trout as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. By law, the USFWS is required to make a finding – within 90 days after receiving such a petition – as to whether substantial scientific or commercial information has been presented to indicate that the listing might be warranted.
However, the USFWS failed to make such a 90-day finding regarding the California golden trout petition, at the time claiming budgetary constraints. In February 2001, Trout Unlimited notified the USFWS that if it did not act on the petition, the organization planned to pursue legal action.
"We had hoped to prevent taking this issue into the courts. That is why we delayed any legal action for a year, hoping that the USFWS would step up to the plate, do their job, and take the steps necessary to help save the native California golden trout from extinction. Unfortunately, all we got from them was silence," said Steve Trafton, Trout Unlimited's California Policy Coordinator.
Trafton said that after Trout Unlimited filed its initial petition, both the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service recognized the threat to the golden trout and began work with the organization and others to improve the existing golden trout management plan. That effort is still in its preliminary stages.
"We've made a great start with the state and the Forest Service, but we have not made enough progress over the past year to either eliminate the risks to the California golden trout or to obviate the need to list the fish under the ESA," Trafton said.
"The USFWS cannot keep ignoring strictly defined statutory deadlines," said Deborah Reames of Earthjustice. "This is especially true where the threats to the species, in this case California's state fish, are so identifiable and imminent."
The California golden trout, the state fish, is native to only two high-altitude watersheds in the state's Sierra Nevada Mountains. The trout has fallen victim to the careless stocking of non-native fish and more than a century of overgrazing by cattle and sheep. The species' range, which once encompassed an estimated 450 miles of stream habitat in the upper South Fork of the Kern River and adjacent Golden Trout Creek, today is a small fraction of that historic range. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the golden trout is secure in only 4 percent of its native habitat.
In the months after the initial petition, the U.S. Forest Service announced that it would not reissue the Anheuser-Busch grazing permit on several thousand acres within the federally protected Golden Trout Wilderness portion of the Inyo National Forest. The agency also ordered that no cattle be allowed into the area for at least 10 years so that riparian and stream habitat can recover.However, genetic testing by the University of California at Davis has revealed that there are significant numbers of hybrids scattered throughout the Golden Trout Creek watershed, and that hybrids exist in the South Fork of the Kern River as well.
"The Forest Service's grazing decision was the right thing to do. Just when we thought that we could celebrate, however, the new genetic testing results showed us that the hybridization threat to the species is far worse than we thought it was a year ago when we wrote the petition," said Trafton. "We haven't even got that precious 4% of secure habitat any longer."
The hybridization problem in Golden Trout Creek is the direct result of California's stocking of lakes with hybrid golden trout. Additionally, despite all that is now known about the California golden trout's predicament, the state still stocks rainbow trout into the South Fork of the Kern River below fish barriers, one of which is ineffective at keeping the hybrid fish separate from the native fish.