GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — The federal government has designated habitat critical to the survival of two endangered species of sucker fish that have been at the center of bitter battles over water in the Klamath Basin for decades.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday designated critical habitat for Lost River suckers and shortnosed suckers. A drought in 2001 forced the shut off of irrigation water to most of the 1,400 farms on the Klamath Reclamation Project to conserve water for the suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, the project's main reservoir, and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.
The fish were added to the endangered species list in 1988 due to overfishing and the loss of habitat to the widespread conversion of lakes and marshes to reservoirs and irrigated farmland.
The critical habitat designation came as a result of a settlement with the conservation group Oregon Wild, which was not happy the 241,438 acres of reservoirs and 282 miles of rivers in Oregon and California is about 75 percent smaller than one proposed 24 years ago that never became final.
Wendell Wood of Oregon Wild said they feared that Fish and Wildlife was giving up on suckers in Tule Lake in California, where a couple hundred fish were captured and relocated in 2010 when a drought threatened to leave the reservoir dry. The reservoir and the Lost River, which gave its name to one of the species of fish, were both taken off the critical habitat designation.
Fish and Wildlife said Tule Lake was taken out because, even though suckers are present, they do not reproduce and cannot reach spawning areas. Others areas were removed because they have such poor water quality that the fish are not likely to thrive in the future. One of those is the Lost River, which gave its name to one of the species.
Trisha Roninger, assistant field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife office in Klamath Falls, said the loss of sucker habitat from the conversion of marshes and lakes to irrigated farmland and reservoirs more than a century ago has proved difficult to overcome.
"It was a different time, when the Klamath Project was being developed," she said.
Despite habitat restoration work of $5 million to $10 million per year over the past five years, the suckers' numbers continue to fall, primarily because young fish are not surviving to be old enough to reproduce.
"Slowly, over time, when you look at all the habitat restoration projects implemented here in the Klamath Basin, we are working on it," Roninger said. "But it is a daunting task at this point. There are just some things that may never get fixed. That doesn't mean we are not optimistic."
The conflict between fish and farms reached a head in 2001, when the U.S. Department of Interior shut off irrigation water to most of the 1,400 farms on the Klamath Reclamation Project, which straddles the Oregon-California border south of Klamath Falls. The water was left in Upper Klamath Lake to protect suckers, and released down the Klamath River to protect coho salmon, a threatened species..