US Fish and Wildlife Service under Trump denies another round of Endangered Species Act listings

Spawning Clear Lake hitch - photo: Jeff Miller/Center for Biological Diversity

The Trump Administration has protected the fewest number of threatened plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act of any president since the Act became law in 1973.

As the number of days remaining in the Trump presidency dwindle, a look back at the past four years shows the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has denied federal protection to more than 60 species, with 11 more denials coming on December 2, to include species in northern California and Nevada.

In typical fashion, the Trump Administration appointed an individual to effectively oversee the USFWS, arbiter of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), who has a history of hostility toward the law and agency. In April of 2018, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke named Susan Combs, a noted critic of the ESA, as the acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. 

The Trump Administration did not nominate a person to head the USFWS until October of 2018, when he put forward former Monsanto executive, biologist, attorney, and current director of the USFWS Aurelia Skipwith, the agency’s first African American director. Skipwith was not confirmed until December of 2018.

The most recent group of Endangered Species Act listing denials include fish in California and Nevada.

The Clear Lake hitch

The Clear Lake hitch is a minnow that grows up to 18 inches in length and only lives in Clear Lake, California. Clear Lake is roughly 110 miles north of San Francisco, on the southern edge of the Mendocino National Forest. 

“It’s endemic to the Clear Lake watershed. So it’s found only in Clear Lake, and they spawn in the tributary streams to Clear Lake,” said Jeff Miller senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “They used to spawn in all the tributaries. 

“Historical observers described them as clogging the feeder streams, and as with early reports of salmon, people would talk about how they could have walked across the creek on the backs of these fish. 

“So it’s really unimaginable numbers historically in every tributary, and now it’s down to just a couple thousand, or even in some dry years just a few hundred fish spawning each year, and only in couple tributaries regularly. So this is a fish that’s gone from unimaginably abundant to pretty disturbingly scarce.”

The Clear Lake hitch is the very definition of a threatened species. A 2014 state of California assessment of the hitch found a species teetering on the edge of extinction. The analysis reported wetland habitat loss of 85 percent and spawning habitat loss of 92 percent.

Much of the former stream and wetlands habitat suitable for the hitch has been destroyed or degraded. The list of ongoing insults is long: water diversions, climate change/drought, degradation of spawning habitat, migration barriers, pollution, and competition and predation from invasive fish species.

In the denial to list the Clear Lake hitch, Jeff Miller said the USFWS justified the decision based on erroneous information.

Spawning Clear Lake hitch – Photo: Richard Macedo / California Department of Fish and Game

Miller points out in a press release that the federal finding claims that “Clear Lake 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.’” 

Miller believes the misinformation was 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, according to Miller.

The state of California review of the hitch notes that the fish require accessible tributary streams to successfully reproduce. 

The Biden Administration

Jeff Miller is hopeful the Biden Administration will appoint USFWS administrators who will work in support of the agency’s mission.  

“Biden is presumably going to put people in there who actually support the Endangered Species Act. And we’re going to be pushing hard with Biden and with Congress to actually fund the Fish and Wildlife Service, so they can … there’s been a huge backlog of Endangered Species waiting for protection. You have the tragedy where there’s a number of species have gone extinct while they’re sitting on the waiting list. Some of them sitting on the waiting list for 25 years waiting for protection. So that’s easily addressed, if the funding is there, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has the staff. 

“So yeah, we’re certainly going to ask the Biden Administration to reconsider a lot of the findings that the Fish and Wildlife Service made under Trump. The first thing we should look at is, were these findings made using the best available science, and for the Clear Lake hitch, that’s obviously not not the case. And was there political interference? 

“Did you have some of these higher ups who aren’t biologists rewriting conclusions of biologists and changing recommendations just based on politics, not based on the science, whether these animals are actually, this wildlife is actually endangered or threatened.”

Miller said that barring timely action under the Biden Administration, the Center for Biological Diversity will litigate to ensure a truly threatened species receives the protections of the Endangered Species Act. In a court of law, based on factual evidence, Miller said, the Clear Lake hitch would be listed as an Endangered Species.

“The facts are pretty stark. This is a species that five or six years ago we thought it might actually go extinct. We had a major drought, and from 2013 to 2018, we had the lowest number of spawning fish ever in recorded history. They almost didn’t even spawn in 2013 … so a period of extended drought, and this is a species that we could lose from the planet forever.” 

By Miller’s estimate, under Trump, the USFWS has had a focus on removing species from the list of Endangered Species as a way of clearing a pileup of cases. 

“There’s a huge backlog,” Miller said by phone. “They’ve just denied protection, or they put these species on the waiting list, which is kind of its own purgatory, or what they really, what they’ve done is, they’ve spent a bunch of effort taking species off the Endangered Species list. And that’s been their focus. 

In Nevada 

In the spring of this year, Nevada Gold Mines submitted change of use applications with the State of Nevada Division of Water Resources that would enable the mine to expand into Phase Two operations at the Long Canyon gold mine in remote northeastern Nevada. The request was to pump water some 1,000 feet below the water table to access gold and other mineral deposits. 

A coalition of conservation groups responded with formal protests that expanding to underground mining operations and its requisite groundwater pumping would desiccate the Johnson Springs Wetland Complex (JSWP), located directly down-slope from the Long Canyon mine. The JSWP is comprised of 88 individual springs and is home to a rare population of relict dace.

The groundwater pumping permit was denied in August.

It is well-documented that the Johnson Springs Wetland Complex serves a critical role in wildlife migrations, in addition to supporting a tiny number of relict dace. There are several relict dace populations across the western United States.

The isolated population in the JSWP are a remnant of an ancient cooler and wetter climatology when a pair of vast lakes covered Nevada and western Utah, Lake Lahontan and Lake Bonneville respectively. The genetic uniqueness of the JSWP population of relict dace is being studied and debated. The denial to list the little fish hinged on its lack of uniqueness as a species.

“The denial was interesting,” Miller said. “They didn’t say it wasn’t threatened or in danger. They said it doesn’t qualify for listing because it’s not a valid population. 

“Under the Endangered Species Act you can list the species or you can list distinct populations of species. So the relict dace is an isolated population. There are relatives in other places. But these, this is an isolated population, a spring where there’s no way it could get through to another spring. So, functionally, it’s its own species. 

“But there’s two things they have to look at, which is, is it discrete, meaning, is it separate from other populations? And is it significant? Meaning, if you lost it, would it make a difference for the overall species, and they determined that it wouldn’t be significant to lose this population. 

“Obviously, we disagree or we wouldn’t have petitioned for it in the first place. So we certainly will be looking at that and deciding whether we want to challenge that decision.”


Brian Bahouth is editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media reporter. Support his work between now and the end of the year, and NewsMatch will match your one-time or ongoing gift.