Lake Superior trout may be listed as endangered

By John Flesher
Traverse City, Michigan (AP) 3-08

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken a step toward placing the coaster brook trout, which once thrived in the upper Great Lakes, on the endangered species list.

A petition filed by two groups in 2006 made a strong enough case to justify a formal review, the service said in a Federal Register notice. The Sierra Club and the Huron Mountain Club sued the agency in December for failing to act earlier. Officials blamed the delay on budget restraints.

The agency plans to make a tentative decision by Dec. 15, spokeswoman Georgia Parham said. If it recommends listing the coaster as endangered, it will consider public comments before issuing a final ruling.

“Coasters” are a type of brook trout that migrate from streams to lakes, then spend most of their lives drifting along the coast. They tend to live longer and grow larger than other brook trout, which stay within rivers and streams.

Their historical range took in parts of Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, with spawning runs in more than 50 streams flowing into Lake Superior from Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

But overfishing and habitat degradation in the 1800s nearly wiped out the coaster. Government agencies, conservation groups and Indian tribes in the United States and Canada are trying to bring it back.

The only self-sustaining populations on the U.S. side are in four Lake Superior streams. One is the Salmon Trout River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which flows through property owned by the private Huron Mountain Club. The others are in Isle Royale National Park.

Fewer than 200 coasters live in the Salmon Trout, said Marvin Roberson, a forest policy specialist with the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter.

Regulations prohibit taking coasters from those waterways, although fish up to 20 inches long can be harvested from Lake Superior. It’s illegal to kill a species on the endangered list.

Coasters also are still found in a few streams on the Canadian side of Superior and in Ontario’s Lake Nipigon.

Researchers are uncertain whether the coaster is a genetically separate species. But the conservation groups contend it would qualify for listing either way, because it is a distinct segment of the brook trout population.

Adult coasters don’t teach their offspring the migratory behavior that sets them apart from other brook trout, Roberson said.

“Our argument is, regardless of where you draw the species line, if you’ve got fish that behave different from other fish, you’ve got genetic differences,” he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t reached any conclusions about that, Parham said.

“The petitioners have given us enough information that we feel we need to look into this,” she said.

Once a species is listed, the government must devise a recovery plan that sometimes includes designating protected habitat.

Kennecott Minerals Co. has received state permits to construct a nickel and copper mine beneath the Salmon Trout headwaters in Marquette County. It also needs a permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Opponents of the mining project have raised concerns about its possible effect on the coaster brook trout.

“We’re very confident that our design will be protective of all fish in the Salmon Trout River – the coasters and all the other ones,” project manager Jon Cherry said.

Logging and road building also can harm coasters by causing sediment buildup in waterways, Roberson said.

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