Land Use

Save the Frankenfish!

Is the snakehead endangered?

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The northern snakehead fish is a little different from the 388 animal species currently listed as endangered: Federal guidelines say the invasive Asian species is a major threat to native wildlife, and the Virginia state government asks anglers who find one to "kill it humanely with a blow to the head." Nicknamed the Frankenfish, the snakehead is capable of breathing air, slithering over land, and surviving three days outside the water, magnifying its ability to move from one habitat to another. None of this deterred Alan Gardner, a commissioner in Utah's Washington County and vociferous critic of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, from filing an application to get the species listed under the act last December.

Gardner and 12 other officials from across the West say environmental groups are using the Endangered Species Act to lock up land from development rather than save threatened species, and they want some reform from Washington. To make their point, they decided to stick up for an unpopular animal in Washington's backyard. The highly predatory snakehead whipped up a panic when it was first spotted slithering through Maryland waters in 2003.

"We just thought it fit the Endangered Species Act as well as some of the other species that have been listed," Gardner says. "It's certainly rare."

Gardner wants more local input into U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decisions, which can impose broad restrictions on land designated as habitat, and a more rigorous process for listing species. He also argues that lawmakers should establish minimum criteria for scientific studies used as the basis for listing species and require peer review of the data. "We spent a few hours on the Internet putting our biology together," he says, "and the comment was made that it was better than most of the biology they see in an application."

The House and Senate are considering reforms that would do just as Gardner asks, and the commissioner says he is optimistic. The snakehead's prognosis is less bright: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not replied within the 90 days specified by the law. "Intuitively, you wouldn't think something you've listed as injurious and invasive is something you would turn around and list as endangered," says Robert Gabel, chief of the division of scientific authority at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.?

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