Modoc Sucker Delisting: Public Comment Period Extended

Anyone with scientific or other evidence regarding the health of the Modoc Sucker as a species has a very brief window during which additional comments may be submitted regarding the FWS proposal to remove the species from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife.

De-listing was proposed a year ago (February, 2014). See my post about it here.

The proposal states:

We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), propose to remove the Modoc sucker (Catostomus microps) from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. This determination is based on a thorough review of the best available scientific and commercial information, which indicates that the threats to this species have been eliminated or reduced to the point that the species no longer meets the definition of an endangered species or a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act). If finalized, the effects of this rule would be to remove the Modoc sucker from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. This proposed rule, if made final, would also remove the currently designated critical habitat for the Modoc sucker throughout its range.

If this proposed rule is made final, it would … remove the Modoc sucker from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and … remove designated critical habitat for the species. The prohibitions and conservation measures provided by the Act … would no longer apply to this species. Federal agencies would no longer be required to consult with the Service under section 7 of the Act in the event that activities they authorize, fund, or carry out may affect Modoc sucker.

The announcement of the additional comment period is at https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2015/02/13/2015-02928/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-remove-the-modoc-sucker-from-the-federal-list-of. It says, in part, “We will consider comments received or postmarked on or before March 16, 2015…. Any comments that we receive after the closing date may not be considered in the final decision on this action.”

We intend that any final action resulting from the proposed rule will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available and be as accurate and complete as possible. Therefore, we request comments or information from other concerned Federal and State agencies, the scientific community, or any other interested party concerning the proposal to remove the Modoc sucker from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife…

Only 8 comments were submitted last year during the initial comment period.

Five of the 8 comments from last year are in favor of delisting, 1 (written by a USDA Forest Supervisor in Oregon) does not explicitly state a position but does point out errors and omissions in the proposal, and 2 are against delisting.

Of those in favor, one is a peer review (by the person who has done most of the scientific work on the species’ status) of the science as presented in the proposal, one is a peer review (by the same person) of proposed monitoring efforts after delisting, one is a letter from the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife in support of the proposal (with a few notes on possible improvements of the monitoring plan), one is from a USGS fishery biologist, and one is a long letter from the California Cattlemen’s Association (much of it describing good work done by individual ranchers so far and promising that they will continue to protect habitat even if they are no longer required to do so).

Neither dissenting comment presents evidence to support continued protection of the species. A letter from the Tribal Chairperson of the Pit River Tribe (of northern California) asks that protection of the species and its habitat be continued and that more be done to protect the Pit River from pollution and degradation. The other comment against the proposal says only “Do not delist the Modoc Sucker. Instead stop giving their water away to wasteful farming endeavors.”

These comments carry little to no weight, since only those with evidence are considered:

Please note that submissions merely stating support for or opposition to the action under consideration without providing supporting information, although noted, will not be considered in making a determination, as section 4(b)(1)(A) of the Act directs that determinations as to whether any species is an endangered or threatened species must be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”

Much of the science regarding this species seems to have been done by (or on behalf of) various government agencies to monitor it under the requirements of its endangered species designation, particularly during a 5-year status review begun in 2006 (at the end of which it was recommended that the species be downgraded from endangered to threatened). Since there are few scientists or organizations studying or supporting study of the species (compared to species that are more economically important or with wider cultural impact and value, such as salmon), it’s not surprising that no evidence-based cases are being made against delisting.

Of course, maybe there would be no such evidence if more science existed. As I said a year ago, it is possible that the Modoc Sucker is secure and that delisting is warranted. It has been found in more streams than at the time of listing (1985), and numbers in some areas are up. Threats have been reduced, at least in some streams, and some habitat has been restored. Some of the information available at the time of listing was lacking, and methods of monitoring have probably improved. I don’t think there is any doubt that the Modoc Sucker, as a species, is healthier today than it was 30 years ago. Whether it is healthy enough, however, seems less clear.

A peer review submitted by Eric Janney (Supervisory Fishery Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey, Western Fisheries Research Center, Klamath Falls Field Station) says that though there is not enough scientific information, delisting is the appropriate course of action:

I have thoroughly reviewed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rule to remove the Modoc Sucker from the Federal Endangered Species list as well as the post-delisting monitoring plan. Based on my professional scientific opinion, I agree with the Service’s decision to delist this species. Although specific scientific information concerning the population dynamics (i.e. abundance, survival, recruitment) for the Modoc sucker is lacking, I believe that the available scientific information (based primarily on observational count surveys) is sufficient to conclude that the threat of extinction for this species is currently very low. I’m basing this conclusion primarily on the fact that during the 29 year time period since the species was placed under the protection of the ESA, there has been no apparent reduction in range or extirpation from any critical habitat. In fact, the known range for this species has either increased substantially since listing, or was dramatically underestimated at the time of listing. Also, newer genetic information concerning the rate of hybridization between Modoc suckers and Sacramento suckers suggests that the threat of introgression is substantially less than previously believed and the rate of hybridization is not increasing. So, although the amount of scientific information concerning abundance and population dynamics is relatively scarce, other types of evidence suggest relatively healthy populations in multiple sub-basins. This leads me to believe that extinction risk for this species is not high enough to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

I predict that the Modoc Sucker will be delisted. That said, if even a scientist who supports delisting admits that “specific scientific information concerning the population dynamics (i.e. abundance, survival, recruitment) for the Modoc sucker is lacking,” and since substantial support for this proposal is agricultural (and, in the case of the foundation that petitioned in 2011 for downgrading, philosophical) in origin, I remain concerned that this decision will be eventually be seen as a mistake. Without habitat protection, and given the relatively short proposed duration of the monitoring program, the species could easily be put in jeopardy more quickly than new protections can be put in place.

The Oregon Chub (Oregonichthys crameri) has officially been delisted this week (the first time a fish has been removed from the list for a reason other than extinction), and all indications are that it truly has recovered sufficiently that extinction is no longer likely. I hope that the Modoc Sucker’s story has a similarly happy outcome.

See all the comments, along with the text of the proposal, supporting documents, etc., here: http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketBrowser;rpp=25;po=0;D=FWS-R8-ES-2013-0133

The FWS Modoc Sucker Species Report (2013), which includes the population data, survey reports, threat assessments, etc., on which the delisting proposal is based, is available as a 70 page PDF.

Modoc Sucker no longer endangered?

Modoc Sucker. (USFWS photo, cropped)

Modoc Sucker (see photo information below)

After almost 30 years on the endangered species list, the Modoc sucker (Catostomus microps) is up for delisting, according to an article from the Klamath Falls Herald and News, by Lacey Jarrell (found on the Oregon Public Broadcasting site) (see also this excellent post on the Introduction to Fisheries blog). The species, which lives in a small area of northern California and southern Oregon, was listed by the state of California in 1980, then federally in 1985. Its decline was a side effect of the usual suspects: dams, logging, road-building and grazing practices, and its apparent recovery is due to concerted (and ongoing) efforts to curtail such damages.

modocsuckerspawning-usfws-flickr-creativecommons

Modoc Sucker in spawning colors

It is a small fish (usually only 3-6 inches, but can get up to 11 inches) with a small range (now estimated to include 12 streams, amounting to just over 42 miles of water). The Sacramento sucker (Catostomus occidantalis) inhabits some of the same waters as the Modoc sucker, and there was concern that hybridization could lead to both species’ demise. Fortunately, the two species use different habitats, spawn at different times of year, are much different in size (the Sacramento sucker can reach two feet in length), and very rarely hybridize.

Modoc Sucker

Modoc Sucker

The delisting process takes a year. There is a 60 day public comment period, so if you know something that needs to be said, you have until April 14, 2014 to say it. There will also be independent scientific evaluations of the species’ status. At the end of the year, the species can be delisted entirely, downgraded to threatened, or left on the endangered list.

[EDIT: I may have misread, or been misled by others’ misreading of, the process. The 12 month period referred to in articles about this story could end with the 2 month comment period. I have to read the USFWS documents more carefully to clarify this, but don’t have time to do that today. Any ESA experts care to comment?]

This is apparently only the second fish species to be considered for federal delisting, after the proposal only a week or two earlier to remove the Oregon chub from the Endangered Species List. As Jarrell’s article points out, fish are not usually delisted for reasons other than extinction. Biologists involved are justifiably excited at the prospect.

Could this move have been spurred by pressure from some entity with clout and a desire for the freedom to damage a watershed for short term gain? I’ve watched enough good environmental news turn bad over the years that I can’t help but be cynical. Though I’ve seen no hard evidence that this delisting is anything other than a consequence of policies and practices that accomplished their goal, I worry that this move is based on factors other than the species’ actual recovery.

The petitioner that started this process is The Pacific Legal Foundation, which calls itself “the first and oldest conservative/libertarian public interest law firm in the United States” and says it “was established for the purpose of defending and promoting individual and economic freedom in the courts.” When someone touting the recovery of a species has economic or philosophical, rather than scientific and biological, motives, I am suspicious.   If delisting occurs, regulations that have protected the species’ habitat (by making ranchers water their cattle away from streams and erect fences to keep cattle from grazing too close the water, for example) will be removed. If such oversight is relaxed, it will not be surprising if the same factors that almost eliminated the Modoc sucker before push it right back to the edge. Or over it.

It is important to note that two other federally listed (i.e., endangered) sucker species exist in the same area. The Lost River Sucker (Deltistes luxatus) and the Shortnose Sucker (Chasmistes brevirostris) (mistakenly called “snortnosed” in virtually all the news articles about the Modoc’s delisting, showing rampant plagiarism and ineffective editing) are found in the same counties and face the same threats as the Modoc Sucker. Both were listed in 1988. Though critical habitat designations were proposed in 1994, no action was taken. A second attempt was not made until 2011 (after a lawsuit that forced the issue), and this time the effort was successful. Regulations went into effect in January, 2013. According to Oregon Wild, however, major portions of the fishes’ ranges were left out of the designation, to the detriment of their recovery. They report that the area included in the new ruling is 75% smaller than what was proposed in 1994. Ironically, the Lost River is not included.

It is easy to believe but hard to stomach that for almost two decades after being recognized as endangered, nothing was done to actively protect these fish. Perhaps, given the apparent success of critical habitat regulations in the case of the Modoc Sucker, there may be hope for these other species. On the other hand, my initial reading of numerous federal documents and news articles seems to indicate that the protections now in effect fall into the “least we can do” category, and populations are apparently continuing to shrink. (See below for links.) In 2009 a petition was filed to delist both the Lost River and Shortnose, apparently by agricultural/irrigation interests. The feds determined there was not sufficient cause to delist. I would not be surprised to see more such petitions, since the battle over water and endangered species in Oregon (and California, probably) is still going strong.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service Modoc sucker species profile includes the 1985 listing and the new delisting proposal, among other documents: http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=E053

Modoc Sucker by Joseph Tomelleri

Modoc Sucker by Joseph Tomelleri

For more information about the Lost River Sucker and Shortnose Sucker, see:
Oregon Wild’s Klamath suckers page (Oregon Wild sued the federal government to force the designation of critical habitat). For an article about the shortcomings of the critical habitat designation, see this article on the Oregon Wild site.
For more info, see the USFWS species fact sheet for the Lost River Sucker and the species fact sheet for the Shortnose Sucker. For all the official documents, see the USFWS species profile for the Lost River Sucker and the species profile for the Shortnose Sucker.

Photo credits:
All images from the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region on flickr. All 3 photos cropped by Olaf as permitted by their Creative Commons License.
Fish on hand original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/12468673524/
Spawning original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/12468166405.
Ruler original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/12468175215

Tomelleri image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/7310626968/ (shared under the same Creative Commons License as the photos).