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Group making a point with 'endangered' snakehead
By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer 1/26/05

A group of politicians from Western states has embarked on an unlikely cause: having the voracious, invasive northern snakehead declared as an endangered species.

But the move isn't so much about the toothy fish - it's a stunt aimed at gaining attention to property owners' concerns about the federal government infringing on their rights to protect endangered species.

Alan Gardner, a commissioner in rural Washington County, Utah, admitted the application is a ploy for publicity.

"It may let other people in other areas realize what impact the Endangered Species Act has on them," Mr. Gardner said.

The petition filed by Mr. Gardner and government officials from a dozen other Western states asks the federal government to protect the northern snakehead and its possible habitat - a massive stretch of land from upstate New York to parts of North Carolina.

In Utah and other Western states, property owners have clashed with federal authorities and environmentalists over the implementation of the Endangered Species Act for decades. Most notably, protecting the northern spotted owl was blamed for logging operations in the Pacific Northwest grinding to a halt in the early 1990s.

The petitioners are asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the snakehead "endangered" and adopt rules to preserve its habitat, including scores of streams and rivers and a five-mile radius along their banks. The area includes 67 million acres of mostly private land in eleven Eastern states and the District of Columbia.

A bare-bones Web site, www.conservationwire.com, shows a map of the massive area.

"That's something we feel is totally reasonable under the act and how it's interpreted here in the West," Mr. Gardner said.

The northern snakehead, channa argus, is native to Asia but appeared in a Crofton pond in 2002. With a huge appetite, the ability to breathe air and wriggle short distances across land, the snakehead set off alarms at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Officials feared the snakehead could eat or crowd out native fish.

The DNR eventually poisoned the pond and found hundreds of juvenile snakeheads. More recently, they've been found in the Potomac River.

Upon hearing of the "endangered" application yesterday, a top DNR official reiterated the agency's anti-snakehead stance.

"We don't know what the problems with snakeheads will be and we don't want to use the Chesapeake Bay watershed as an experimental tank to find out," said Jonathan McKnight, associate director of habitat conservation for the DNR.

Mitch Snow, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, confirmed that his agency received the petition. He said he couldn't comment, however, until the agency has finished a preliminary review of the application, which would take at least 90 days.

The snakehead faces significant challenges to be considered endangered or threatened, a lesser level. For starters, the Fish and Wildlife Service already has declared the snakehead "injurious" to other wildlife. Invasive species aren't normally considered for protection.

What Mr. Gardner and the co-applicants really want is for Congress to change the Endangered Species Act. They want outside scientific review of listing decisions, clearer definitions in plans to bring back a species and a clearer sense of when a species can be taken off the list.

Mr. Gardner complained that environmental groups hijack the Endangered Species Act to stop development.

Robert Nelson, an environmental policy professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said Mr. Gardner's concerns are nothing new out West.

"This kind of thing is going on all the time," said Mr. Nelson, a former government official who specializes in land management issues. "A lot of rural Western states see the Endangered Species Act as a way of infringing on their private property privileges."

He said those seeking changes in the Endangered Species Act have a "better shot" at getting reform in the current Congress, because of strong Republican majorities in both houses as well as a Republican in the White House.

Mr. Gardner stressed he has a bipartisan coalition behind the snakehead application. The co-signers are county-level officials in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.






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