MARQUETTE - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has delayed until April a decision on whether the coaster brook trout warrants protection under provisions of the federal endangered species act.
In October, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to issue its finding by Dec. 15. But over the past two weeks, those considering the question decided to postpone their decision while they acquired some data on genetics of the fish.
"We felt it was important enough to delay our finding," said Jessica Hogrefe, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife regional office in Minneapolis.
On March 1, 2006, the FWS received a petition from the Sierra Club Mackinac Chapter and the Huron Mountain Club to list the coaster brook trout as an endangered species and to designate critical habitat.
Peter Dykema, fisheries manager with the Huron Mountain Club, said the petitioners agreed to the extension so the FWS would have more time to consider the genetic data collected last summer.
"The goal of the listing efforts is simply the protection of the coaster brook trout. The coasters are dangerously close to extinction, and need protection under the Endangered Species Act," Dykema said. "Changing the decision from December 2008 to April 2009 should not have practical implications for the fish, which are substantially protected by the Huron Mountain Club and the Michigan DNR, for now."
The FWS finding is set to be published in the Federal Register on or before April 15.
On Friday, John Rebers, chairman of the Sierra Club's Central Upper Peninsula Group, said the decision delay could be beneficial.
"I feel more comfortable having that decision made by the Obama administration, rather than rushed through while the Bush administration is going out the door," Rebers said. "I've had some concerns about many places in the Bush administration, not just the Fish and Wildlife Service, not making thorough and careful decisions based on science."
A strong impetus behind gaining coaster protection is concern over the Kennecott Minerals Company nickel and copper mine planned for the Yellow Dog Plains.
Kennecott's mine would lie beneath the Salmon Trout River, which is home to the last known breeding population of coaster brook trout on the south shore of Lake Superior.
The private Huron Mountain Club owns the land on both banks of the stretch of the river accessible to coasters. Coaster brook trout are a strain of brook trout that grow to larger than typical sizes and are named for their being found along the shores of Lake Superior.
Kennecott's mine is designed to extract an ore body 1,000 feet directly below the headwaters of the Salmon Trout. Because of the nature of the ore - nickel- and copper-bearing sulfide rock - some are concerned that a process known as acid rock drainage could deposit heavy metals in the river.
"With the threat of the mine, Endangered Species Act protection for the coaster brook trout is more important than ever," said Michelle Halley, Lake Superior project manager for the National Wildlife Federation.
Kennecott officials have said the top of the ore body is located 200 feet below the surface soil, which holds a stretch of the Salmon Trout headwaters. Separating the Salmon Trout and the ore body is a layer of 70 feet of impermeable clay, glacial till and surface soil above a 130-foot cap of bedrock, officials said.
"Protecting wildlife, wildlife habitat and the natural environment on the whole, is one of Kennecott's top priorities as we develop and operate Eagle. We live here too, and share with others a deep appreciation for the abundance of wildlife the area supports," said Jon Cherry, Eagle Project manager. "We take seriously our responsibility to do things right and to comply with all applicable state and federal regulations in place to make sure our activities are appropriate to protecting all wildlife."
Cherry said the "spawning grounds for the coaster brook trout are approximately 10 miles downstream from the mine site, and the fish are physically prevented from accessing the Salmon Trout River in the area of the mine site by waterfalls and dams located between the mine site and spawning grounds.
"In fact, fish studies of the Salmon Trout River in the area where the mine will be built have determined the river there is too small to support coaster brook trout, let alone their spawning in this location."
For a federal Environmental Protection Agency permit under review for the mine, federal officials will consider the potential presence of endangered or threatened species in the mine project area and provide measures for their protection.
Other species of potential concern include the Canada lynx and the Kirtland's warbler, which has been sighted in the jack pine plains a good distance from the mine over the past three years.
"We have carefully studied species and habitats in the area and determined that none will be adversely effected by our activities," Cherry said. "We have designed Eagle and its environmental management controls with protecting all species in mind. This will be true even if the coaster brook trout were to be classified as endangered by the USFWS."
For more information on the coaster brook trout, FWS actions related to the petition or periodic updates on the status review, visit the Fish and Wildlife Service Web site at: www.fws.gov/midwest/eco%5Fserv/soc/fish/cobr/index.html