Judge says Calif. wild steelhead must be protected | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Judge says Calif. wild steelhead must be protected

Samantha Young, Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO ” A federal judge on Monday upheld protections for wild steelhead trout in California rivers, rejecting an argument by forestry groups that argued the success of hatchery-raised steelhead has made the population sufficiently robust.

U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno disagreed. He said hatchery-raised fish are no substitute for wild steelhead.

While science shows that hatchery-fish can be beneficial, they also can be detrimental to wild steelhead, Wanger wrote in his 168-page ruling.

Steelhead are listed as either threatened or endangered in different parts of California.

In a related claim, the judge also rejected a bid by Central Valley farmers to remove steelhead trout from the federal Endangered Species Act. The farmers pointed to an abundance of resident rainbow trout, steelhead that do not migrate to the ocean.

The Modesto Irrigation District had argued that rainbow trout are essentially the same species as wild steelhead. Wanger agreed with federal wildlife scientists, who have said wild steelhead are distinct and indispensable to the survival of the species.

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The rulings signify another victory for federal wildlife agencies and the fishing and conservation groups that had intervened in the cases.

It is the third instance in two years in which a federal court has rejected arguments that hatchery fish ought to be counted as part of salmon or steelhead populations, said Steve Mashuda, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit group that represented the conservation and fishing groups.

Studies have shown that while wild and hatchery fish in a river may be genetically the same, they have behavioral differences that make wild fish more successful at surviving. Hatcheries can boost overall numbers of fish in a stream, but the fish they release also have poor reproduction rates and can compete with wild fish for food and mates.

In some cases, they can hurt the sustainability of wild fish stocks, scientists have found.

Environmentalist have argued that the goal of the Endangered Species Act is to restore steelhead and other struggling species to self-sustaining levels, without intervention from humans.

“One day, the act contemplates we would no longer need hatchery fish,” Mashuda said.

But the law also complicates efforts by agriculture groups that seek greater access to water and to timber companies that want to log in sensitive habitat.

The groups pressing the cases say federal wildlife managers should assess an entire fish’s population ” both wild and hatchery-raised ” when deciding whether to protect it.

“Once you have identified a given population for listing, the ultimate determination of whether you list that population has to be based on the entire population,” said Damien Schiff, an attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents agriculture and forestry groups.

Schiff said it was too early to know whether the group would appeal the judge’s ruling.

A representative with the Modesto Irrigation District could not reached for comment.