ASSOCIATED PRESS - The Olympian
WASHINGTON 4/9/02 -- The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service is wrestling with a sexy little question. Should
it protect a fish when it may be mating itself out of existence?
The westslope cutthroat trout, which was plentiful in western
waters when Lewis and Clark made their expedition, has been
interbreeding with rainbow trout that are stocked in its native
lakes, rivers and streams.
The result is that the fish has harmed its chances for
survival, and the Endangered Species Act isn't clear about how to
handle this type of situation.
In deciding a suit filed by five environmental groups and a
sport fisherman, a U.S. district judge in Washington last week
told the government to rethink its 2000 decision not to protect
the cutthroat under the Endangered Species Act.
Judge Emmet Sullivan said the agency should have better weighed
the risks created when the native cutthroat breed with nonnative
In a ruling that touches on genetic purity and species
protections, Sullivan was particularly troubled by the
government's decision to count the hybrid fish when it tallied the
westslope cutthroat population, and still conclude that
interbreeding threatens the fish.
Within one year, he wants the government to finish a new review
about whether to protect the fish.
Lynn Kaeding, Fish and Wildlife's supervisory fishery biologist
in Bozeman, Mont., said he doesn't know what the agency will do
next, though it is considering an appeal.
"This is a head-scratcher," he said. "I have a
hard time personally and professionally coming to the conclusion
that the (hybrid) fish isn't important."
Kaeding thinks the ruling may mean the agency has to improve
the criteria used when it decides whether a fish is close enough
to a cutthroat to be counted as one.
That may require more biochemical testing, which means the fish
have to be killed to study them. This is less than desirable and
costly, Kaeding said.
Westslope cutts live in parts of Montana, Idaho, northwest
Wyoming, eastern Washington and the John Day River Basin in
In 1997, American Wildlands and other environmental groups
petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to have the fish
protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Cutthroats are highly dependent on clean, cold streams. But
logging, mining and other development in wild lands are making it
more difficult for the trout to find suitable habitat.
Other trout that have been introduced in the westslope
cutthroat's waters -- including rainbow and brook trout -- are
also out-competing the cutthroat.
Cutthroat trout can be distinguished from rainbows most easily
by the bright red-orange slashes of color under their lower jaws.
Unlike rainbows, they have teeth in their throats between the
gill arches and typically have longer heads and jaws.
Colorations vary, but the dark spots on the cutthroats' sides
are generally larger than those on rainbows. Anglers know them as
the most aggressive biters of the trout species, making them
easier to hook than rainbows, brook trout or German browns.
Place in history
Rob Ament, executive director of American Wildlands, and other
environmentalists see the case as the first major suit to question
interbreeding and hybrid fish.
If the cutthroat disappear, Ament believes the country is in
danger of losing a piece of its heritage. Lewis and Clark
described the cutthroat in 1805 during their expedition west, and
the fish's scientific name is Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi.