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Lamprey protection soughtLamprey protection sought

By Paul Fattig
Mail Tribune
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They are slippery, slimy bloodsuckers with mugs not even a mother could love.

But lampreys — whose parent dies within four days of spawning eggs — play an important role in the health of the region’s rivers and streams, said Joseph Vaile.

"In their larval stage, they are filter feeders that clean up our waters for us," said the staff biologist for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

"They are also a food source for many other species," he added. "They are very important."

Citing studies that show dwindling numbers of lampreys in regional rivers, his group and 10 other West Coast environmental organizations on Tuesday petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list four Pacific Coast species of lampreys as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Protecting lampreys will help preserve salmon populations which share the same need for a healthy environment, the environmentalists said.

Like salmon, most lamprey are born in freshwater streams, migrate to saltwater and return to their native habitat to spawn and die.

Dams, development and poor agricultural and forestland management practices have contributed to the lamprey’s decline, Vaile said.

The four lamprey species petitioned for protection include the Pacific lamprey, river lamprey, western brook lamprey and Kern brook lamprey. Except for Kern brook lamprey, which are limited to a small section of the San Joaquin River Basin in California, the other lamprey species spend most or all of their life cycles in coastal rivers and streams.

Lampreys are found in the Applegate, Illinois and Rogue river drainages, including Bear Creek.

Because of declining populations, the Pacific lamprey was listed as a sensitive species by Oregon in 1993. Their numbers have declined more than 90 percent in some river systems, Vaile said.

For example, counts at the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River declined from 46,785 in 1966 to less than 50 annually since 1995, he noted.

In the Rogue River, counts from Gold Ray Dam ranged from 155 to 2,370 annually since 1993, reflecting numbers far below the historic average, he said.

Although lampreys found locally are commonly called eels, they are not. Unlike eels, adult lampreys have rasping teeth with which they attach to other fish and suck their blood and flesh.

However, not all lampreys prey on other fish, many of which feed on young lampreys, according to Rich Nawa, an ecologist with the Illinois Valley-based Siskiyou Regional Education Project, which joined the petitioners.

"They are at the bottom of the food chain when they are larvae," Nawa said. "They are like giant stream cleaners. As adults, they prey on everything, any fish out there."

Yet of the four lamprey species named in the petition, only the Pacific and river lampreys produce parasitic adults which attach to other fish, he noted.

Protecting lamprey would lead to broader restoration of the ecosystems they share with salmon, said Wendell Wood, a field representative for the Oregon Natural Resources Council. That group also signed the petition.

"While the scientific case for needing to protect wild salmon is still very strong, strategically, conservation-minded citizens can no longer depend on threatened or endangered salmon listings alone to protect these fish and all the other species associated with their critical freshwater habitats," he said.

But Russell Brooks, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property rights public interest law firm which brought lawsuits to delist protected salmon, told The Associated Press the lamprey petition simply demonstrated the lengths to which environmentalists will go to control land use.

"What they were unable to achieve through salmon listings they are now seeking to attempt through a lamprey listing, which has apparently become their poster species of the month," Brooks told AP.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to come up with a preliminary finding on the petition within three months. If warranted, a status review of the request would be completed within a year.

Other groups signing the petition included Umpqua Watersheds, Friends of the Eel (River), Environmental Protection Information Center, Native Fish Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Northcoast Environmental Center, Umpqua Valley Audubon Society and Washington Trout.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com

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