By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

Local steelhead runs are on track to be listed as a threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species Act, and even federal officials seem unable to stop it.

Craig Wingert, a fishery biologist and a supervisor with National Marine Fisheries Services Southern California region, said the agency is between a rock and a hard place.

The court hamstrung us a bit, he said. They essentially told us we cant legitimately consider some of the information we have. Were all under a lot of pressure to meet this court order now.

The NMFS decided against listing steelhead as a threatened species in the Klamath Mountain Province in 1998 when various conservation efforts appeared promising, according to Wingert.

But a lawsuit against the agency by the Federation of Fly Fishers resulted a U.S. District Court judgment, which is forcing NMFS to reconsider the listing, and forcing the agency to review statistics that do not currently exist.

We thought our 1998 decision was a good decision, said Wingert. We debated whether or not to appeal this case but ultimately decided against it. So now we need new information.

Information that the agency and the courts can consider is limited mainly to reports from Californias Department of Fish and Game or from sanctioned biologists. Fish and Game hasnt been conducting research in Northern California for very long, according to Wingert.

We wanted them to do better monitoring and they have been, but it hasnt been that long. In Oregon, Fish and Game has been doing a better job. They have statistics from the mid-1970s through the 1990s that indicate healthy steelhead populations there, he said.

The Oregon state government is actually pushing ahead on easing regulations on hatchery steelhead that fishermen can keep. Why California has been remiss on monitoring steelhead is a question not yet answered.

You have to pay the fees here too, and the licenses, said Mick Thomas, licensed river guide with Lunker Fish Trips in Hiouchi. So why dont we have any statistics? Were paying all this money and where is it going? What are they spending it on?

Without data from Californias Department of Fish and Game, locals insist that the next best source are the fishermen themselves.

Theyve got to talk to people who are fishermen, said Del Norte County Supervisor Chuck Blackburn. Anything you give them thats not from a fish biologist they (wont consider).

An example of the expert-versus-fishermen argument is the difference between summer and winter steelhead populations. The summer population has declined more than the winter runs.

Theyre trying to lump them both together, said Thomas. The summer run and the winter run, these are two different species. Theyre not even close to being the same species.

They (the fishermen) treat them like different species, said Wingert. But when you look at the available genetic information, and I admit its not rock solid, there is a very clear pattern. They have very similar genetic makeup. We think theyre not different enough to separate, based on genetic information.

For example, summer and winter steelhead from the Klamath River are genetically closer than strictly summer steelhead from streams on the Klamath and from Oregon, said Wingert.

What a threatened species listing will mean to the local economy can only be speculated but it will have a negative impact, according to Bob Will, manager of the Rowdy Creek Hatchery in Smith River.

This will be bad for all Del Norte County, Will said. Fishermen come here to fish from all over the western states, and as far away as Canada.

Wingert was less pessimistic about the effects of a possible listing. He said fish runs here probably will be listed as threatened, a less serious classification than endangered.

In any case, where well list a species as endangered, prohibitions automatically go into effect, said Wingert. That doesnt always happen with a threatened listing. In this case there might be some flexibility to implement protections.

Recent hearings sponsored by the National Marine Fisheries Service havent had a huge impact on the process on the federal agency, according to sources on both sides of the listing issue.

The worst part is we didnt get anything out of it, said Thomas. They asked for public input but I dont think it had much impact. It really looks like were in trouble here.

Written comments are still being accepted by NMFS but must be received by March 5. Letters should be addressed to: Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected

Resources Division, NMFS, Northwest Region, 525 NE Oregon Street, Suite 500, Portland, Ore., 97232-2737.