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Biologists recommend continued protection for Klamath fish 7-07

- A panel of biologists recommends continuing Endangered Species Act protection for two species of fish in the Klamath Basin, maintaining pressure to find solutions to the regional water woes that led to a cutoff of irrigation water in 2001.

A U.S. House panel holds a hearing next Tuesday to look at what role Vice President Dick Cheney played in a decision to restore irrigation, which was followed by the deaths of some 70,000 salmon in the Klamath River in 2002 due to low water.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday that a review found one species in the upper basin, the short nosed sucker, still at risk of extinction, and it should remain classified as an endangered species.

The Lost River sucker is not at risk of extinction in the foreseeable future, so it should be reclassified as a threatened species, the agency said.

One of the leading threats to the fish now is poor water quality, which is not likely to improve any time soon, the review found.

It is not clear why one fish is doing better than the other, and there is no specific timetable for when the agency might act on the recommendations, spokeswoman Alex Pitts said from Sacramento, Calif.

"We have not seen significant recovery of any fisheries, and the Service is correct to retain the legal protections," said Joe Kirk, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, whose members once caught and preserved the fish for winter fare.

"In fact, it should have continued both species as endangered," Kirk said in a statement.

Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents farmers, said the improved condition of Lost River suckers showed that habitat restoration was paying off, but more work needs to be done with federal agencies and the Klamath Tribes to find lasting solutions.

Court battles over how to divide scarce water between farms and fish have continued, but farmers, Indian tribes, conservation groups and California commercial fishermen say they hope to have a deal worked out by November to settle many of the issues, including whether to remove four dams on the Klamath River to increase salmon spawning habitat.

The Klamath Tribes hold an annual ceremony honoring the fish, once a staple for them as well as a popular catch for sport fishermen.

The suckers were protected as endangered species in 1988 after their numbers plummeted due to loss of habitat from draining lakes and marshes to create farmland, and to overfishing.

That protected status led the federal government to shut off irrigation water to most of the 1,400 farms of the Klamath Reclamation Project in 2001 to maintain water for the suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, the irrigation system's primary reservoir, as well as threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.

Since then, the federal government has been spending about $85 million a year on various fish habitat and water conservation projects in the basin, said Pitts.

"The service remains determined to restore Klamath sucker populations to a viable condition and recognizes the needs of the Klamath tribes who rely on the suckers for its cultural and economic value," Steve Thompson, manager of Fish and Wildlife Service's California/Nevada Operations Office, said in a statement.

The review was prompted by a petition from a group called Interactive Citizens United to take the fish off the endangered species list.

A panel of 12 scientists representing government agencies and interest groups reviewed various sources of information about the fish and made the recommendations.