U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides against listing hitch under Endangered Species Act
LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – A long-running effort to list the Clear Lake hitch under the federal Endangered Species Act led this week to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deciding against it, an action that the environmental organization that sought the listing said was based on “misinformation” and “nonsense.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported Wednesday that its determination, “based on the best available science,” is that the Clear Lake hitch does not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act, or ESA.
In response, the Center for Biological Diversity, which sought the listing, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s determination “is based on misinformation and contradicts the conclusions of native fish experts and findings by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and California Fish and Game Commission, which designated the hitch as a threatened species under California’s state Endangered Species Act in 2014.”
“It’s infuriating but not surprising that Trump’s Interior Department is denying protection for one of California’s most threatened native fish based on misinformation, nonsense and climate change denial,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Clear Lake hitch, Lavinia exilicauda chi, is a large freshwater minnow that is endemic to the Clear Lake watershed.
The hitch reside in Clear Lake and Thurston Lake until the spring, when they migrate up several local creeks to spawn before going back to their lake home.
The fish has been a staple for local Pomo for centuries and local residents recount seeing the fish migrating through creeks by the thousands up until about 30 years ago. Over the last 20 years, the hitch population has been reported to be in significant decline, with small numbers of them now tracked on their annual migration.
The Center for Biological Diversity submitted the state and federal listing petitions on the Clear Lake hitch in September 2012, as Lake County News has reported.
The petitions were supported by local tribes, including the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, Big Valley Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians and Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo, as well as the California Indian Environmental Alliance and California native fish expert Dr. Peter Moyle of the University of California at Davis.
Miller, who authored the hitch listing petition eight years ago, said the hitch once numbered in the millions, with spawning runs entering every tributary of Clear Lake each spring. “It’s now reduced to numbers in the hundreds to low thousands regularly spawning in just a few tributaries.”
In March 2013, the California Fish and Game Commission approved listing candidacy for the hitch, and in August of 2014 the commission approved the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's recommendation to list the Clear Lake hitch as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act.
That made the hitch the first aquatic listed species in the Clear Lake Basin, said Miller.
Federal listing decision to face challenge
U.S. Fish and Wildlife said it received a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity on Sept. 25, 2012, to list the Clear Lake hitch as threatened or endangered under the authority of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
The agency issued a 90-day finding on April 10, 2015, stating the petition presented substantial information that listing the Clear Lake hitch may be warranted.
In the intervening years, however, the ESA faced potential alterations, with the Trump administration announcing last year that it planned changes including reducing protections for species listed as threatened and that economic factors would be considered before a decision on listing a species as threatened or endangered was made.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a coalition of 20 attorneys general sued last year to stop the changes and in May won a ruling that allowed the lawsuit to advance.
However, the suit didn’t appear to impact the hitch’s listing proceedings.
After reviewing “the best available scientific and commercial information,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife said it has determined that the Clear Lake hitch does not warrant ESA protection.
The agency said the hitch is primarily impacted by habitat loss, degradation and modification; poor lake water quality; increased predation and competition; and drought.
“However, none of these threats are likely to adversely affect the overall viability of the fish to a point that it meets the definition of threatened or endangered. The long lifespan, high reproductive capacity and flexibility in spawning locations (from streams to lakeshore), demonstrate resiliency that will enable the species to persist despite ongoing threats,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife said in its Wednesday announcement.
The Center for Biological Diversity said the state of California’s status review for the hitch conducted in 2014 found significant habitat degradation, with wetland habitat loss of 85 percent, spawning habitat loss of 92 percent, and significantly degraded water quality in the lake and most tributaries.
The group said the California Department of Fish and Wildlife concluded that predation and competition by introduced fishes have a significant impact on hitch and predicted that climate change impacts to hitch annual spawning cycles and the Clear Lake watershed stream flows will be significant.
The center also challenged the federal government’s findings, which state that the hitch do not require tributary streams to spawn but can also spawn successfully in Clear Lake itself, giving them “behavioral flexibility to variable environmental conditions.”
“This misinformation appears to be based on recent anecdotal reports of large numbers of hitch purportedly spawning in the lake, which turned out to be schools of misidentified non-native fish,” the group said Wednesday.
The center said the state status review for the hitch found the hitch require tributary streams to successfully spawn, and a 2019 USGS study states that within-lake spawning is not a significant source of Clear Lake hitch production and recruitment.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife said that while it determined that the Clear Lake hitch is not warranted for listing, “we consider it to be an important component of the biodiversity of the Clear Lake watershed. As such, we will continue to work alongside the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, local government agencies and Tribes to develop and implement a conservation plan for the species.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife analysis of the Clear Lake hitch will be published in the Federal Register on Dec. 3. The final species assessment can be viewed at www.regulations.gov by searching under docket number FWS-R8-ES-2020-0112.
Also on Wednesday, the Trump administration denied protection to 10 other species, including the southern white-tailed ptarmigan, tufted puffin, three species of Nevada springsnail, a rare Nevada fish, Rocky Mountain monkeyflower, tidewater amphipod, Doll’s daisy and Puget Oregonian snail.
“As with the hitch, the administration ignored serious threats of habitat destruction and climate change to a number of these species,” the Center for Biological Diversity reported.
The center reported that it is evaluating those findings, as well as more than 100 others denied by the Trump administration, and plans to ask the Biden administration to reconsider many of them, as well as potentially challenge denials in court.