Obama Administration Denies Big Lost River Whitefish Endangered Species Protection

Rules that isolated population is not a distinct population

The mountain whitefish of the Big Lost River Basin was denied endangered species protection by Ken Salazar’s US Fish and Wildlife Service. They argued that the fish could not be considered a separate species, sub-species, or distinct population segment even though they have been isolated from other whitefish for more than 10,000 years and their habitat is being destroyed by water diversions and livestock grazing.

Big Lost Basin Whitefish - Idaho Department of Fish Game
Big Lost Basin Whitefish – Idaho Department of Fish Game

Because of this isolation they have become genetically divergent form other populations and should be considered a distinct population segment. In fact, one report, which examined the genetic traits of these fish found them to be the most genetically distinct population.  The problem is that the USFWS based nearly their entire reasoning on genetics when little is really known about how important even slight variations may be in fish populations which are easily reproductively isolated and have very different ecological pressures as opposed to widespread land animals.  The USFWS didn’t consider distinct life history, habitat, or behavioral qualities. The idea that they are not a DPS doesn’t even pass the sniff test.

While whitefish are plentiful in many other places, this isolated population has been severely affected by irrigation dams which prevent movement up and down stream, dewater entire sections of river, and are not screened so fish are diverted into fields.

Cattle grazing has also eliminated them from some of the smaller streams such as Antelope Creek and the entire Copper Basin.

Mountain Whitefish in Big Lost River will not be protected
Idaho State Journal

Feds: No protection for whitefish
By SIMMI AUJLA – Associated Press






  1. mikepost Avatar

    All species have isolated groups that do not interbreed with other like groups and thus become slowly genetically distinct. To use that as the major critieria for listing is not appropriate and would result in making a mockery of the ESA process and possibly the kind of backlash that would gut what effectiveness it has.

    1. Kropotkin Man Avatar
      Kropotkin Man

      “All species have isolated groups that do not interbreed with other like groups and thus become slowly genetically distinct. ”

      This sounds more like an argument for listing than against?

  2. RLMiller Avatar

    Obama is compiling a very depressing record on endangered species. Allegedly the F&WS’s priority will be on climate, but I haven’t yet seen any proof of this beyond the public announcement.

  3. Talks with Bears Avatar
    Talks with Bears

    “Obama is compiling a very depressing record on endagered species” the only thing depressing is that folks here expected anything different – wake up.

  4. Jim Avatar

    Talks with Bears is right. The politicians are all the same.

  5. JB Avatar

    The federal government responds to two things: money and votes (in that order). As it stands environmentalists and conservationists are outspent by groups interested in resource extraction and exploitation; moreover, with public concern focused on the economy, virtually no one will decide their vote based upon environmental issues, let alone endangered species. Climate change is an exception to this rule simply because public concern is pervasive and the current administration sees a link between climate change policies and the economy (via the creation of “green” jobs and energy).

    The congressional and executive branches of the federal government–i.e., the branches that respond to votes and money–have been at work weakening the protections of the ESA almost since the moment it passed.

    1. Talks with Bears Avatar
      Talks with Bears

      JB – in your opinion, was there a watershed moment on the weakening of the ESA protections? Or has it been more of a grinding?

    2. JB Avatar


      There are a number of events/decisions that have significantly weakened ESA protections, though I’m not sure I would describe any of them as watershed moments. Here are a few examples that we cited in a recent paper:

      (1) In 1995 Congress attached a rider to a military appropriations bill that temporarily eliminated funding for ESA listings (1995, Public Law 104-6). This was an explicit warning to FWS to slow down listings, and was likely (in part) a response to the Supreme Court decision that the modification of an endangered species habitat could constitute “harm”. It was also likely due to the controversy surrounding the spotted owl listing and wolf reintroduction.

      (2) There was a tremendous increase in “not warranted” and “warranted but precluded” findings during the second Bush administration. The “warranted but precluded” finding in particular seems to be a method of putting off politically contentious listing actions (e.g. sage grouse)–passing on the “hot potato”, as it were.

      (3) The Solicitor’s 2007 Memorandum Opinion regarding the phrase “a significant portion of its range”. This opinion claims that range refers only to the current range of a species (not its historic range) and that the FWS/NMFS can interpret significant on a case-by-case basis. The Solicitor essentially ignored previous listing actions, legislative intent and previous court decisions in its interpretation of this phrase. Note: this action makes it virtually impossible to argue that a population needs to be listed if the species itself is not threatened with or in danger of extinction.

    3. Talks with Bears Avatar
      Talks with Bears

      JB – done any interesting polling lately you would like to share?

    4. JB Avatar

      Not at the moment. We should have some data we can share this fall.

    5. Talks with Bears Avatar
      Talks with Bears

      JB – thanks for the post. In your opinion, over these years (and events you noted) are we as a country attempting to define where we want to be on this issue? For example, when I saw the map of the sage grouse “range” not sure if it was historical or otherwise – we are talking about serious real estate so, not argue the legal aspects but, would someone sit back and say “if we move forward for the sake of the grouse we are going to impact A LOT of stuff and folks” and maybe choose to slow down?

    6. JB Avatar


      I think the fundamental problem is that while there is wide spread support for protecting endangered species (and populations), people don’t decide their votes based on these issues; thus, politicians have a strong incentive to pay special attention to the desires of extractive industries and no disincentive for ignoring the views of ardent conservationists. There are exceptions to this rule–as when congressman Pombo (R, CA) was defeated largely because conservation groups dumped a load of money into his competitor’s pockets after Pombo made repeated attempts to weaken the ESA.

      There are problems with the law as well. Ostensibly, listing decisions are to be based upon best commercial and scientific data available. However, while science can help us determine the risk of extinction to a certain species or population, it can NOT tell us whether that risk is acceptable. The later question is usually the source of disagreement where listings are concerned.

      Anyway, this will be a great topic for conversation (over a beer or 3) if we ever have that get together at Ralph’s place. 😉

  6. mikepost Avatar

    JB is correct in his/her analysis. That public concern is not tilted back in favor of ESA actions when folks look for obscure esoteric genetic differences like the one cited herein order to force a listing. The general public does not perceive such actions as reasonable and the long term positive cost/benefit case for saving a small genetically divergent group of an otherwise large, healthy and well dispersed species has never been sold to them or accepted by them. Credibility and reasonableness are the single greatest factors if the public/politicians are to support ESA actions. Extremism in ESA applications plays right into the hands of the ESA foes in the ag and business world.

  7. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

    The Illusion of Technique, in this molecular genetics, is mesmerizing not only to some scientists and reporters, but in this case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their arguments, although arbitrary and very weak, are like splitting hairs, and are arguments against their genetics interpretations are equally highly technical and cause most folks to glaze over.

    On the other hand, preserving and restoring the Big Lost River mountain whitefish is important, not only to the native fishes and aquatic ecosystems of the isolated Big Lost River Basin and Idaho’s imperiled ecosystems, but also to native american fishes of the West. This goes to the root and basic public support for the ESA – not molecular genetics and disputed arguments on their interpretations.

    What is missing from the argument, which by the way, has an independent, grassroots, local support as evidenced by several of the public comments submitted to the status review docket on e-government’s regulations.gov site, is the importance of restoring the Big Lost River Basin ecosystems that have suffered more than 150 years of insults. Restoring base flows and the natural hydrograph with minimum seasonal instream flows plus consolidating and screening irrigation diversions while increasing irrigation efficiencies (or offering buy-outs and lease agreements) coupled with restoration of riparian and stream habitats by roping in rampant, unrestrained cattle grazing, will not only help the imperiled Big Lost River mountain whitefish, it will help the local communities perhaps by encouraging and establishing greener, sustainable communities and businesses that could enjoy a fully functional Big Lost River Basin ecosystem and the outdoor tourism and sport anglers it would bring.

    I am proud of the local citizens, some third generation Big Lost River Valley ranching and farming families, who are willing to stand up for the Big Lost River and that realize that the Big Lost River mountain whitefish is just the “canary in the mineshaft”, which indicates restoration and recovery is needed now!

    1. Tom Page Avatar
      Tom Page


      Your third paragraph is an excellent summary of my thinking about the future of many of the streams in Idaho (and other places). I’ve been driving up and down the Salmon River from Stanley past Challis this spring, with it’s banner steelhead run, and the number of vehicles parked and camped at the pullouts is remarkable – even during the week. I’m hopeful that this has not escaped the notice of the Custer/Lemhi County powers-that-be. While I don’t believe tourism to be the holy grail for rural Idaho, a diversified economy in these areas would really help take the pressure off the ground, and provide a good reason not to squeeze every nickel out of every acre. It also gives a good incentive to create legal and permanent methods to keep water in the streams.

    2. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

      Yes, loads of anglers, all concerned about the fish, but also the Salmon River and how it can support its bounty. Same here from Corn Creek to Challis – loads and load of anglers, all potential supporters of instream flows and ESA protections that not only protect rare species, but all aquatic and riparian species.

      I really think people in Lemhi and Custer counties miss the boat when it comes to sustainable local economies. they should definitely be making the switch from boom-bust economies based on extractive, non-sustainable uses (mining, logging, grazing, irrigation) and switch to greener, more sustainable economies based on trophy angling for native salmonids, rafting, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, outdoor photography, wildlife viewing, wildflower tours and other forms of eco-tourism.

      Even without the fat government subsidies that support grazing and the other types of natural resource “mining”, with a switch to ecotourism and water-based outdoor recreation that is sustainable, they probably could stay in the ranching culture that their families started some 150 years ago and stay with the family lands intact, thus avoiding bankruptcies, foreclosures, and subdivisions.


      larry z

    3. Tom Page Avatar
      Tom Page

      I hope those government subsidies will help me hold on to lands in the Pahsimeroi Valley long enough to be able to help enhance and restore the river channel in a couple places…if they exist, I may as well take advantage of them.

    4. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

      Where do you own property in the Pahsimeroi River valley? which streams? did you know that WWP is fighting for T&E fishes, critical habitat, and Essential Fish Habitat on several fronts in the Pahsimeroi River Basin?

      let me know here or via my email at larry@westernwatersheds.org

  8. Kayla Avatar

    Personally why should people be surprised with this. I
    agree with Talks with Bears and JB in that about all the
    politicians are the same anymore it seems. In my opinion,
    there is actually just one political party here in America
    anymore called the Republicrats or the Demlicans which is
    completely owned and given over to the International
    Banksters, Wall Street, and their Big Money Corporate
    Allies. And there argueing with each other is just a show to
    fool the sheeple. Anybody who thinks differently in my
    opinion is only fooling themselves. How many of these
    politicians of both parties, don’t care a wit about the
    environment but just of their own political futures. In my
    opinion, high time for the sheeple to wake up and realize
    just what is happening in America. And all of these big
    moneyed interests like these International Banksters, Wall
    Street, and Corporate Allies are in reality no true friends
    of this Consitutional Republic. So why constantly be so
    surprised in something like this. Again In My Opinion!

    1. Talks with Bears Avatar
      Talks with Bears

      Kayla – well stated.

    2. Kropotkin Man Avatar
      Kropotkin Man

      I agree with your analysis. Further, I believe that many that label themselves as tea-partiers feel this way as well. Yet, for some reason, they just don’t follow the money far enough to see the real puppet-masters (huge corporations). They are fixated on the politicians.

      This scares me in that (given current conditions) less government control will just lead to greater corporate control. I am not a fan of power in the hands of the few but to simply limit government will provide for a huge vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum and the corporations will move in for the kill. At least that’s the perspective from my tree.

  9. Kayla Avatar

    Kropotkin, I think one cannot label all the Tea Partiers as
    just one group because of many different groups and
    opinions that are out there. The ones in control seemingly
    are soooo trying to keep us sheeple so much right in the
    box which they soooo completely control behind the
    scenes. Yes how much are the corporations also part of the
    mix of the Puppetmasters.

    But still these ones with the money are the ones that
    orcastrate so many things currently and they are not going
    to give up their power and control willingly in my opinion.
    I personally believe that we are in for one really really
    bumpy ride with whoever is in power. So personally I am
    just gonna go into the woods and enjoy the wilds as I can
    and am able while our society seemingly goes seemingly
    marching over the cliff.

    And now talking about Endangered Species do really think
    anymore that maybe one day, and possibly really soon
    also, it just might be Us Human Two Leggeds that will be
    the Endangered Species because of our stupidity and
    greeds. In My Opinion. Have a Good Day!


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Ken Cole