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Feds to consider protection for lamprey

By Jeff Barnard
Associated Press
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to review whether four species of lamprey found on the West Coast should be protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Under the settlement of a lawsuit filed earlier this year in U.S. District Court in Portland, the agency agreed to make an initial decision by Dec. 20 on whether a yearlong review should be done on the status of Pacific lamprey, river lamprey, western brook lamprey and kern brook lamprey.

Any yearlong reviews deemed valid would be done by Nov. 15, 2002.

"Lamprey have declined dramatically and need the safety net of the Endangered Species Act to survive," said Joseph Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

A coalition of 11 conservation groups petitioned in January 2003 to list the four species as threatened or endangered. At the time they said they hoped to increase pressure to improve fisheries habitat and the ecological health of watersheds harmed by dams, logging, agriculture and development.

Fish and Wildlife responded that the agency saw no reason to grant emergency protection for any of the species, and would not have the time or money to begin formal consideration until a new budget year. As they have with many species, including the northern spotted owl, environmentalists then sued to force consideration.

Lamprey are jawless fish that resemble eels. Pacific lamprey, the most widespread of the four species, grow to 30 inches and were once an important source of food for American Indians, as well as seals and sea lions. Young salmon feed on young lamprey in fresh water.

The name comes from the Latin for rock-sucking, which refers to the lamprey's habitat of attaching to rocks with its mouth while swimming upstream.

The young spend four to six years buried in silt or mud on river bottoms, filter feeding on microscopic vegetation, before migrating to the ocean, where they fatten up for the spawning run - scavenging, eating smaller fish and sometimes attaching themselves to salmon and marine mammals.

Pacific lamprey and river lamprey inhabit large to medium-sized rivers from Alaska to Mexico. The Western brook lamprey inhabits small tributaries from the Sacramento River to British Columbia. The Kern brook lamprey is found in California's San Joaquin River Basin.

Indian tribes in the Columbia Basin have been working to restore lamprey populations with funding help from the Bonneville Power Administration, but tribal harvests at Willamette Falls in Oregon have declined steadily.

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