Stealth Attack on the Endangered Species Act.


Upper Klamath Lake is a twenty mile-long, shallow lake in southern Oregon near the California border. It is a natural reservoir that feeds the Klamath River, home to an endangered species of coho salmon. The lake itself is home to two endangered species, the Lost River sucker and the short nosed sucker. Both fish are endemics; that is, they evolved there and occur nowhere else; both species were important, first to the Native Americans and later as a sport fishery.

Upper Klamath is also the center of an enormous irrigation project that delivers 500,000 acre feet of water a year to farms and wildlife refuges. The Klamath Basin is semiarid country, which means farms need irrigation to survive, and several dry years have resulted in controversy over who has rights to the limited amount of irrigation water. This classic western water conflict has a new wrinkle in that federal law now mandates that water managers cannot harm the three endangered species in the ecosystem, two in the lake and one in the river. Many scientists from universities, government agencies and the tribes have worked in the Klamath Basin, and their expertise has been recruited to find out how much water can safely be removed from the ecosystem. The Klamath Basin is the size of a small state and has enough ecological complexity to keep scientists arguing for a good long time.

However, the Departments of Commerce and Interior charged a National Research Council committee to determine whether there was 'scientific proof' that the water restrictions the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service were imposing would accomplish what they were intended to do; i.e. if holding back water in the lake reduced fish kills. This mandate is a fundamental misunderstanding of science: science never proves anything, it only eliminates the contenders among competing ideas; the smart people the President surrounds himself with certainly understand that.

The executive branch of government by demanding scientific proof of the effectiveness of a proposed action is trying to change the Endangered Species Act extralegally. The ESA as written instructs government agencies to use the best available science to protect endangered species. When the science is questionable the agency is to err on the side of conservation. This new mandate from the executive would establish unattainable standards and effectively gut the Endangered Species Act. There is a very good overview of the Klamath controversy written by Robert Service in Science magazine1.

In an attempt to better understand some of the underlying natural history in Upper Klamath Lake we spoke with Professor Douglas Markle of Oregon State University about his work on the reproductive biology of two of these endangered species2.

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