Western officials seek snakehead protection

ST. GEORGE, Utah — A group of Western county commissioners who have problems with the Endangered Species Act has filed to have an Asian fish that's invaded the East protected under the act.

Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner, along with commissioners from 12 other Western states, are petitioning the Fish and Wildlife Service to include the northern snakehead fish on the endangered species list.

A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said injurious species are exempted from protection under the act, but the commissioners still hope to show lawmakers in the East what problems the act presents to officials in the West.

The petition's purpose is to call attention to these issues through a species in the East with a potentially large habitat. The snakehead's habitat could extend through 11 states in the Chesapeake Bay drainage, from Vermont down to North Carolina, according to the research done by the petitioning group.

Two Charlotte fishermen reported catching two northern snakeheads at North Carolina's Lake Wylie in 2002. The state's Wildlife Resources Commission quickly outlawed the purchase, sale, transport or ownership of the Asian fish.

The large, toothy fish has been dubbed the "Frankenfish." It can grow up to 3 feet, breathe air and wriggle across land and it eats fish and frogs. In many of the Eastern areas where it has turned up, there are no predators to control it.

The fish have been sold in the United States as a delicacy in Asian food markets and some have been sold in pet stores. In 2002, the federal government outlawed the transport of live snakeheads.

Pershing County Commissioner Roger Mancebo, a Democrat from Lovelock, Nev., has joined Gardner, a Republican, and the other commissioners in backing the petition.

Mancebo said the petition will be an eye-opener for those who have not had to deal with the Endangered Species Act in land management.

Mancebo said he hopes it will get the attention of Eastern lawmakers and bring to light how certain species are listed as endangered just because ecology groups allegedly want them to be listed.

Gardner cited problems southwestern Utah landowners have faced with environmental groups regarding the Endangered Species Act, especially with the desert tortoise and the resulting habitat conservation plan.

"It's had a big impact on us," Gardner said. "Private property owners are denied use of their property if it affects the species."

He said grazing has been eliminated in many areas and he contends that some environmental groups are just trying to force people off the land.

"It's in response to the whole Endangered Species Act," Gardner said. "We feel the act has been hijacked by these environmental groups, and it's being used as a land management tool."

Ken Burton, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, does not believe the commissioners' petition will move forward. The snakehead is on a list of injurious species, and the Endangered Species Act does not allow an injurious species listed as endangered, he said.

Even if the snakehead is not listed, the commissioners hope their petition will show the hurdles local officials deal with when facing endangered species like the desert tortoise and the spotted owl.

"Living in the West, we seem to be inundated with the cries from mostly people back in the East to list everything that is walking," Mancebo said. "This was just to send a message of how silly this stuff is."