Species Act at work in Klamath basin
By Peter B.
Moyle and Jeffrey F. Mount -- Special to The Bee
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Sunday, December 28,
The controversy over water and
endangered fish in the Klamath River basin has
been, and will continue to be, touted as an
example of all that is wrong with the U.S.
Endangered Species Act. Critics claim that the
act allowed federal agencies to use biased
studies, ignore rights and needs of farmers, and
even list species that were not in jeopardy.
We have news for the critics. In the Klamath
basin the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is
working as intended when President Nixon signed
it into law 30 years ago today. This is one
important conclusion that can be drawn from the
final report of National Research Council's
Committee on Threatened and Endangered Fishes of
the Klamath basin, which was issued in October.
We were members of the committee.
Klamath basin grabbed headlines in 2001 when
federal agencies cut water to farmers to help
endangered fish. The agencies' biologists
claimed their studies indicated that the fish
required higher levels in Upper Klamath Lake
and higher flows down the Klamath River than
were scheduled. The farmers claimed that the
agencies' actions were not justified
scientifically and that the agencies were
abusing their powers under the ESA. The
National Research Council was called in to
resolve the dispute by looking at the
scientific bases for the agency decisions.
that in fact the higher lake levels and flows
did not have a strong scientific basis, at least
for protecting the listed species.
However, we credited federal biologists for
using the best information they had available at
the time and rejected claims they were using
"junk science," as some members of Congress
The ESA is an unequivocal statement by the
American people that no native species should be
allowed to go extinct and that the best way to
ensure this is to protect the environments in
which the species live. In the Klamath basin,
the ESA-listed species of contention are two
sucker fish and the coho salmon. The suckers,
once a major food source for the Indian tribes,
require healthy lakes and rivers in the upper
basin. The coho, once important to both tribal
and commercial fishers, require healthy
cold-water streams in the lower basin.
The problems in the Klamath basin in the
drought-stricken summer of 2001 were not created
by the ESA. Rather, conflict turned into crisis
because basin stakeholders on all sides took
entrenched, unyielding positions.
At the center of the controversy were two
understaffed agencies charged with implementing
the ESA: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and
the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the
face of limited available information, these
agencies were required by the act to save the
listed species in the basin using their best
Contrary to public perception, the National
Research Council report supported most of the
recommendations put forward by these agencies
and recognized that they behaved responsibly
under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
We disagreed with them only on the most
contentious issues of water supply. However,
peculiarities of water quality and the life
histories of these fish have made for the
unusual condition where more water will not
necessarily improve conditions for them.
Our report recommended taking a broader
approach, focusing on restoring habitats and
ecosystems. We recommended actions that would
benefit not only listed fish, but also others in
jeopardy, such as most of the native fish of the
upper basin, species found nowhere else on
Earth. These actions also would benefit the many
sea-run fishes of the lower basin, including
runs of steelhead, Chinook salmon, cutthroat
trout, green sturgeon, lampreys and eulachon.
Solutions in the Klamath basin are going to
be complex, expensive and take a long time to
implement. They will require removing dams,
restoring forestlands and marshes, modifying
hatchery operations and changing agricultural
practices. Most important, they will require
cooperation between agencies and stakeholders.
But the potential ecological and economic
benefits of such actions are enormous,
particularly if they avoid future listings of
The findings of our report also illustrate
the weaknesses of the ESA as a conservation
tool. It is first and foremost an act of last
resort, intended to pull species back from the
brink of extinction. The fault does not lie in
the act itself, but in the failure to develop
policies that seek to avoid listings.
Just as the American public intended when it
was passed 30 years ago, the Endangered Species
Act compels all players to come to the table and
gives us a place to start working on solutions.
It has accomplished this in the Klamath basin.
Peter B. Moyle and Jeffrey F. Mount are
professors at the University of California,
Davis. Moyle is author of "Inland Fishes of
California" and can be reached at email@example.com.
Mount is author of "California Rivers and
Streams" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.