A federal court has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to make the lake sturgeon a federally protected species.
The ancient species of fish lives in the Great Lakes as well as the Mississippi and Ohio River basins. It’s already endangered in Indiana because of issues like pollution and the construction of dams — which prevent them from reaching their spawning areas.
Multiple environmental groups in the state filed a lawsuit last year urging the Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to list the fish under the Endangered Species Act. Now the court has given the agency three years to make that decision. Attorney Mark Templeton directs the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School and represented plaintiffs in the case.
“It can't keep pushing that date back further, arguing about lack of resources or other important species or things like that. So we are glad to have a firm, fixed date," he said.
Templeton said advocates involved in the case would have liked to have seen a faster timeline of 12 months.
According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the East Fork of the White River is home to the last population of the Ohio River basin variety of lake sturgeon. Brant Fisher is the non-game aquatic biologist for the DNR's division of fish and wildlife. He said the Ohio River basin variety of might be better suited to more southern states than other populations of lake sturgeon.
“So I think it's always important to try to maintain some of that uniqueness of the genetic material within any species," Fisher said.
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Gary Moody is the director of Fishable Indiana Streams for Hoosiers. He said he hopes listing the fish under the Endangered Species Act will finally lead to the removal of Williams Dam near Bedford — giving the Ohio River basin population room to thrive.
“To allow the sturgeon there to roam up river and repopulate and expand their populations," Moody said.
If the Fish and Wildlife Service does decide to list the lake sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act, it will likely be at least another year before the agency issues its final rule.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.