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Campaign Aims to Save the Snakehead

By Joshua Partlow
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page PW05

Of all the names that have been hurled at the northern snakehead -- intruder, predator, Frankenfish -- Alan Gardner would like to add one more to the list: victim.

Gardner, a Republican county commissioner from Utah, wants the snakehead off the most-wanted list and on the endangered species list. With officials from 12 other Western states, he has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to save the snakehead.

Some say an endangered snakehead is "ludicrous." (Michael Lutzky -- The Washington Post)

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"There are not very many of them," he said. "And they're trying to get rid of those they have."

It's true that the snakehead, infamous for its voracious appetite and ability to scramble over land, has not been treated with kid gloves since it infiltrated Washington area ponds and rivers. When the Asian import surfaced in Crofton in 2002, the pond was poisoned. Potomac River fishermen have instructions to kill all snakeheads on sight. U.S. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton once called the fish "something from a bad horror movie."

But why does Gardner, who lives in a sunbaked corner of southwest Utah, 2,300 miles from the Potomac, care about the snakehead? In an interview, he said initially he found the creature "truly unique."

"I thought, 'Man, that's something -- a fish that can get out and move across dry land,' " he said.

Then he mentioned the desert tortoise.

It turns out that in Gardner's jurisdiction, Washington County, 60,000 acres of tortoise territory have been protected since 1996 inside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The reserve, he said, devalued private property, kept out new subdivisions and golf courses and generally trampled the economy. All because the tortoise is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

"There's a lot of people in the West that consider any species that gets listed as the enemy," Gardner said. "Because the real threat is to the people."

So Gardner hopes to hit Washington policymakers where it hurts. All fresh water with any connection to the Potomac should be closed to boating, fishing or swimming to protect the snakehead, according to his petition. Traffic on existing bridges should be restricted to emergency vehicles only, and people mowing lawns within five miles of the water should be accompanied by a trained snakehead observer.

"It's a joke," said John Odenkirk, a fisheries biologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "To suggest that an exotic, invasive species that has only been in this country a couple years is somehow afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act is just ludicrous."

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to grin and bear it. The agency will perform the standard scientific review to see if certain factors, such as loss of habitat, predation or disease, warrant protecting the snakehead, spokesman Mitch Snow said.

Currently, federal law deems the fish an "injurious" species and bans interstate trade and transport. "You would think," he said, "being listed as injurious would be somewhat inimical to it being endangered."

The agency regularly receives petitions and litigation to protect all sorts of species. As of late January, staff members were working on 32 active lawsuits involving 42 species, Snow said. But the strangest petition, he said, was not the snakehead. Three months ago, Maxim magazine, fearing the demise of macho men in a "metrosexual" world, petitioned to put males on the endangered species list.

"Unfortunately," Snow said, "I'm not making this up."

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