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Coastal Cutthroat Trout to Be Considered for Endangered Species Protection

Victory: Court overturns decision to deny trout protection in lower Columbia River and southwest Washington
April 21, 2008
Portland, OR —

The U.S Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not give Columbia River and southwestern Washington populations of the coastal cutthroat trout a fair shake when it denied the trout protection under the Endangered Species Act. The plaintiffs in the case, Center for Biological Diversity, Oregon Wild, Pacific Rivers Council, and WaterWatch, are hopeful that the ruling will lead to much-needed protection for the imperiled fish.


"The sea-run coastal cutthroat trout is near extinction in this corner of the Pacific Northwest," said Noah Greenwald, science director with the Center for Biological Diversity. "These fish need the safety net provided by the Endangered Species Act to survive."


Coastal cutthroat have evolved a unique survival strategy, with some fish spending their entire lives in small tributary streams while others are anadromous, migrating to the ocean and returning to spawn much like salmon. The greatest concern is for ocean-migrating populations, whose migratory corridors are severely threatened by habitat loss caused by logging, grazing, hydropower, urban development, and other land and water use.


"Like all too many iconic fish up and down the West Coast, sea-run cutthroat are suffering from the one-two punch of poor freshwater and marine conditions," said Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda, who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "The Court told the government that it cannot continue to ignore the problems plaguing sea-run trout habitat in this region. We're hopeful that the Service will listen and grant these fish the protections they need."


Based on a status review produced by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Clinton administration proposed to protect coastal cutthroat trout in the Columbia River and southwestern Washington as threatened in 1999. On July 5, 2002, the Bush administration reversed the proposed rule, even though there wasn't any new information indicating the trout was faring better.


The Bush administration has only protected 58 species of plants, animals, and fish to date, compared to 522 species protected during the Clinton administration and 231 during the elder Bush's tenure. Under this administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service has not protected a single U.S. species in 712 days. This is by far the longest period without a new species being protected since the landmark federal law was passed, surpassing even James Watt, who, under President Reagan, in 1981 and 1982 went 382 days without listing a species.


"The Bush administration denied coastal cutthroat trout protection not because the species doesn't need to be protected, but because of hostility to the Endangered Species Act," said Greenwald. "Decisions about how to protect our rivers and fish need to be based on science, not politics."


"The coastal cutthroat trout is one of many fish threatened by unwise development of land and water in the West," said Dr. Chris Frissell, director of science and conservation with the Pacific Rivers Council. "Protection of the coastal cutthroat trout and its habitat benefits us all, saving high-quality rivers and streams and restoring the web of life in fresh waters."


Coastal cutthroat trout are unique and beautiful fish that were once abundant across the Pacific Northwest. Their name is derived from the brilliant slash of orange or red that usually marks their lower jaw line. Resident cutthroat living in streams may only be a few inches long as adults, while sea-run cutthroats may reach a length of 20 inches or more.


Read the decision (PDF)

Contacts

Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495
Steve Mashuda, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 27
Dr. Chris Frissell, Pacific Rivers Council, (406) 883-1503 

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.