Environmentalists wait to learn fate of Lake Sammamish kokanee
February 23, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Conservationists continue to await a decision by the federal government about the status of the dwindling Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon — years after rules required the federal government to act.
Environmentalists and local government officials estimate the population of adult kokanee at a few hundred. Before a species can receive protection under the Endangered Species Act, the animal or plant must be placed on the federal list of threatened endangered species.
After the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service receives a petition, officials must determine within 90 days whether the petition merits further action. Officials issued the initial finding about the kokanee in May 2008, and recommended the species for further review. The deadline passed in December 2008 for the agency to determine whether kokanee should be listed.
Jeff Chan, a fish biologist at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service state office in Lacey, said a backlog of endangered-species petitions slowed the process for the kokanee.
“We are not technically meeting our statutory target,” he said.
If the government declares a species as endangered, the listing requires officials to develop a recovery plan, designate critical habitat and put penalties in place for people caught harming the fish or habitat. Measures to preserve the species and habitat could impact how development proceeds near creeks upstream from Lake Sammamish.
Environmental groups, local governments and the Snoqualmie Tribe petitioned in 2007 to list the landlocked salmon species as endangered.
The petition and dozens of others received renewed attention in December, when the Center for Biological Diversity — a Tucson, Ariz., nonprofit organization — threatened a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service unless the agency progressed through the backlog.
Mark Getzendaner, president of the local Trout Unlimited chapter, recalled a past effort to protect kokanee, and said he hoped to avoid a similar outcome with the latest petition.
Save Lake Sammamish petitioned in 2000 for the agency to declare early-run kokanee as endangered, but biologists declared the early-run fish extinct in 2003, before the federal agency acted.
When, exactly, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will issue a decision remains uncertain.
“Your guess is as good as mine” about when the U.S. Department of the Interior — the department responsible for the agency — will issue a decision, Chan said.
Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, said the federal agency takes a methodical approach to classifying endangered species. The size of the bureaucracy prevents the agency from moving nimbly, she added.
“They want to be sure that what they’re doing is the right thing,” Frisinger said.
Getzendaner said the listing could provide clout for agencies, groups and governments as they work to protect kokanee habitat.
“I believe that they’ll come with just a little bit of help,” he said.
The threatened or endangered listing “puts a candle under the agencies who are responsible,” he said.
Conservationists seeking to protect threatened Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon received a boost from the King County Council last June, when council members called on federal officials to list the fish under the Endangered Species Act.
Efforts to preserve the salmon continue as conservationists await a decision from the federal government.
State biologists and ecologists used dip nets to collect fish from the Lake Sammamish watershed last fall. Scientists netted about three dozen kokanee pairs from streams near the lake, and took the fish to the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery. Workers and volunteers collected 34,700 kokanee eggs. The offspring will be raised at the Cedar River Hatchery and introduced into the Lake Sammamish watershed as fry, tiny fish about a year old.
Meanwhile, efforts to protect the fish continue. Trout Unlimited hosted a fundraiser in Issaquah last month to raise money for preservation efforts.
“I think that the future of the kokanee is good as long as the kokanee remain in the public’s awareness,” Getzendaner said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.