Western states facing new endangered species inquiries

Published October 1, 2001

Environmental groups have begun pressing the case of three western species they claim are in danger due to human development. The new actions have the potential to create a severe impact on economies up and down the Pacific coast.

Government scientists begin investigating orcas

Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service on August 7 began investigating Puget Sound killer whales. The scientists are responding to a petition filed by 11 different conservation groups claiming the Puget Sound orcas are a distinct population as defined by the Endangered Species Act and in danger of becoming extinct in the Pacific inlet.

Scientists note that 16 orcas did not return to the Sound this year from the open Pacific. As a result, they believe the local population currently stands at 78 whales. Scientists estimate the Puget Sound orca population peaked historically at roughly 150 whales.

The petitioners claim the orcas are being stung by a shortage of salmon and the presence of toxic chemicals in Puget Sound. According to their theory, logging in the Pacific northwest has harmed the river ecosystems of local salmon, a primary orca food source. The resulting decline in the salmon population has caused the orcas to feed on bottom fish that have ingested toxic contaminants. As a result, they contend, logging bans are necessary to protect the orcas.

Skeptics assert the effects of logging have been far overstated and the logging theory is being advanced more for the distinct ulterior motive of stopping logging than for protecting orcas. Skeptics also note orcas thrive in the North Pacific and argue the Puget Sound orcas are indistinct from the large numbers of other orcas patrolling the northern sea.

The scientists hope to reach a decision soon on whether or not to list the Puget Sound orcas as an endangered species.

Spotted owl back in the spotlight

Another coalition of environmental groups filed an August 1 federal suit alleging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is failing to protect the California spotted owl in the Sierra Mountains.

The suit asserts the California spotted owl is an endangered species but has not been properly recognized as such by the federal government. The California spotted owl is a close relative of the northern spotted owl, which has been the center of controversy in the Pacific northwest for more than a decade.

The same suit asserts a weasel, known as the Pacific fisher, is also endangered in the California Sierra Mountains but has not been properly recognized as endangered by the federal government.

“Populations of both the California spotted owl and the Pacific fisher are declining and face a serious risk of extinction,” argued Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Old growth forests in the Sierra Nevada have been reduced by 60 to 85 percent as a result of logging on Forest Service and private timberlands. Species like the California spotted owl and fisher, which depend on intact old growth ecosystems, are at great risk.”

The plaintiffs filed a petition with the Fish and Wildlife Service last year seeking to add the two animals to the Endangered Species list. The USFWS has not yet responded to the petition.

“To further delay their protection under the Endangered Species Act violates the law,” claimed Laura Hoehn, an attorney with Earthjustice.

Pat Foulke, a USFWS spokesperson, responded that lawsuits such as the current one are self-defeating in that they sap agency resources that would otherwise be devoted to investigating and listing species.

Stated Foulke, “We have been hit with a flood of litigation over the last several years. Our funds are completely exhausted for doing any other work. Our hands are tied by earlier litigation. If they win, they take a number in line. Right now they are on the shelf.”

The USFWS has already proposed a “Sierra Nevada Framework Plan” to protect old growth forests in the California Sierra Nevadas. Although many of the petitioners have praised the plan, they protest it does not apply to privately owned land.

Suckerfish battle moves south

The Klamath Basin along the California-Oregon border may not be the only high-profile battleground over suckerfish. A group of four liberal environmental groups has threatened the USFWS with a lawsuit over its handling of Santa Ana suckerfish.

The groups claim the USFWS has failed to live up to a November 2000 agreement to map out and protect suckerfish habitat. Moreover, they suspect the change in Presidential administrations is to blame. The groups have threatened a suit to enforce the agreement as well as a contempt of court motion in federal district court.

Urbanization and water pollution are allegedly the cause of declining suckerfish numbers. The coalition of petitioners seeks to restrict development in Los Angeles basin rivers and streams as a means of protecting the fish.