Those who fish and live near California’s Clear Lake have good reason to fear a proposal to list the hitch, a type of native minnow, under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Passed with the best of intentions in 1973, the ESA has proven to be a poorly worded, over-reaching federal mandate often used --- and abused --- by environmental organizations. They wield it to push a preservationist ideology, with saving plants and animals from extinction simply a convenient front for raising funds.
By contrast our rights to use both public and private lands and waters are the collateral damage, with little recourse except years of expensive litigation, an option that few of us can afford.
At Clear Lake, one of the best bass fisheries in the nation could be threatened by this listing, as well as the well being of communities that rely on the economic engine of recreational fishing.
How good is this 43,785-acre natural lake? Well, until it was surpassed by Texas’ Falcon in 2008, Clear Lake owned all of the heavyweight B.A.S.S. tournament records. In 2007, it surrendered a four-day weight of 122 pounds, 14 ounces to Steve Kenney.
It is ranked as the 10th best bass fishery in the country by Bassmaster Magazine.
Additionally, agriculture around the lake could be a casualty.
“The one fact that surprised many in the audience was that local economic conditions can't be taken into consideration while determining if a species is endangered,” said the Lake County Record-Bee newspaper, reporting on a public meeting about the listing proposed by the Center for Biological Diversity.
“In other words, even if the listing of a species as endangered would have devastating consequences on a local community it would have no effect on the listing process.
“That did not sit well with many at the meeting. Many worry if the hitch is declared endangered it would impact the use of the lake by fishermen and boaters. The local farming community, which uses water from the lake, is also worried about the consequences of the hitch becoming an endangered species.”
What is used to determine whether a species is appropriate to list as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service?
“The best scientific information available,” reports the FWS in its “ESA Basics” fact sheet.
As many critics are quick to ask, what if the best available isn’t very good? The spotted owl controversy provides the perfect example.
In 1991, FWS gave the northern subspecies of the owl ESA protection as a “threatened” species. “Best scientific information available” suggested it was declining because of habitat loss. As a consequence, much of the Northwest’s logging industry was forced to shut down on both private and public lands, killing thousands of jobs and collapsing local economies.
But the spotted owl population continued to decline.
Today, that “best evidence” suggests the spotted owl is threatened by its more aggressive cousin, the barred owl, moving into its territory. And wildlife managers are developing plans to kill thousands of barred owls.
If the hitch should be listed, it’s entirely plausible to think that largemouth bass might be similarly targeted. After all, it is not native to Clear Lake, or even California for that matter.
Yes, bass have been in the fishery for more than a century and the lake has been altered dramatically over time by development, which has contributed to the hitch’s decline. But because of their high profile, bass are a favorite target in the West. Preservationists also insist on blaming them for the decline of salmon in rivers that have been altered almost beyond recognition by dams and diversions.
On the other hand, a restoration plan for the hitch might not be directed at diminishing the bass population. Maybe it will be about habitat improvement, and that even could be good news for bass and other Clear Lake species.
But the history of the ESA and its enforcement is full of examples where common sense does not prevail, including the ordeal of Montana rancher John Shuler. He shot a grizzly bear from his porch in self defense, although the FWS didn’t see it that way and fined him $7,000. Fortunately, the Mountain States Legal Foundation agreed to represent him at no charge in the eight-year battle that would have cost him $250,000.
A federal judge finally ruled in Shuler’s favor. But how many others, like the timber industry, lost out and continue to lose out to “best scientific information available” with no recourse?
Those who fish and live around Clear Lake should keep that in mind as they consider whether to support an ESA listing for the hitch.
(This opinion piece appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)