CLEAR LAKE, Calif.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that Endangered Species Act protections for the Clear Lake hitch, a large minnow found only in Northern California’s Clear Lake and its tributaries, are not warranted.
The determination is based on misinformation and contradicts the conclusions of native fish experts and findings by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and California Fish and Game Commission, which designated the hitch as a threatened species under California’s state Endangered Species Act in 2014.
“It’s infuriating but not surprising that Trump’s Interior Department is denying protection for one of California’s most threatened native fish based on misinformation, nonsense and climate change denial,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Service determined that major threats to the hitch such as habitat degradation, predation and competition from invasive fish, and drought and climate change are “not likely to adversely affect the overall viability of the Clear Lake hitch in a biologically meaningful way.”
But a state status review for the species conducted in 2014 determined there has been significant habitat degradation, with wetland habitat loss of 85%, spawning habitat loss of 92%, and significantly degraded water quality in the lake and most tributaries.
The state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife concluded that predation and competition by introduced fishes has a significant impact on hitch. It also predicted that climate change impacts to hitch annual spawning cycles and the Clear Lake watershed stream flows will be significant; a 2013 report by California native fish experts determined that hitch are “critically vulnerable” to impacts from climate change.
The federal finding claims that Clear Lake hitch do not require tributary streams to spawn but can also spawn successfully in Clear Lake itself, giving them “behavioral flexibility to variable environmental conditions.” This misinformation appears to be based on recent anecdotal reports of large numbers of hitch purportedly spawning in the lake, which turned out to be schools of misidentified non-native fish.
The state status review for the hitch notes that they require tributary streams to successfully spawn, and a 2019 USGS study states that within-lake spawning is not a significant source of Clear Lake hitch production and recruitment.
“This is a species that once numbered in the millions, with spawning runs entering every tributary of Clear Lake each spring. It’s now reduced to numbers in the hundreds to low thousands regularly spawning in just a few tributaries,” said Miller. “It’s the very definition of a threatened species, but Trump’s Interior Department has clearly chosen to ignore the science.”
In addition to the hitch, the Trump administration today denied protection to 10 other species, including the southern white-tailed ptarmigan, tufted puffin, three species of Nevada springsnail, a rare Nevada fish, Rocky Mountain monkeyflower, tidewater amphipod, Doll’s daisy and Puget Oregonian snail.
As with the hitch, the administration ignored serious threats of habitat destruction and climate change to a number of these species. The Center is currently evaluating these findings, as well as more than 100 others denied by the Trump administration, and plans to ask the Biden administration to reconsider many of them, as well as potentially challenge denials in court.
Clear Lake hitch migrate out of the lake each spring, when adults make their way upstream in tributaries to spawn before they return to the lake. They were once so plentiful that millions clogged the lake’s feeder streams during their spectacular spawning runs. These masses of fish were a vital part of the Clear Lake ecosystem and an important food source for numerous birds, fish and other wildlife.
Clear Lake hitch were also a staple food and cultural component for the original Pomo inhabitants of the region. The fish once spawned in every tributary to Clear Lake but now regularly spawn in only a few streams, with numbers down to low thousands or even low hundreds of fish annually. The spawning runs from 2013 to 2018 were the worst in recorded history.
Clear Lake hitch have declined to near extinction due to water diversions, climate change and drought, degradation of spawning habitat, migration barriers, pollution, and competition and predation from invasive fish species. The lake and its tributaries have been dramatically altered by urban development and agriculture. Much of the former stream and wetlands habitat suitable for hitch has been destroyed or degraded, and barriers that impede hitch migration have been built in many streams.
Few Clear Lake streams currently offer habitat that hitch can navigate and use for spawning. Clear Lake hitch have adapted to a very brief period of suitable stream conditions for their annual spawning run, and water diversions have caused streams to prematurely dry up progressively earlier. Increased drought and rapid climate change due to global warming will likely accelerate this trend, causing further spawning failures.
The closest relative of Clear Lake hitch was the Clear Lake splittail, a fish driven to extinction by the 1970s from habitat alterations that dried out spawning streams and barriers that prevented its spawning migration.
The Center submitted petitions in 2012 to protect the hitch under both the federal and state Endangered Species Acts. The California Fish and Game Commission designated the Clear Lake hitch as a threatened species under California’s state Endangered Species Act in 2014.