A minnow sacred to some Native Americans nears extinction

Spring runs of a large minnow worth millions have sustained the Pomo Indians since they first settled on Northern California’s Clear Lake more than 400 generations ago.

Clear Lake’s hitch glittered like silver dollars as they rode up the lake’s tributaries to spawn, a dependable, squirming crop of plenty, rich in history and tasty when salted and dried like jerky.

In all that time, the hitch domain, about 110 miles northwest of Sacramento, had never suffered the deterioration of recent years.

Now, with a growing sense of sadness if not anger, the Pomo Indian tribes of Clear Lake watch what they call the symbol of abundance and security chic become extinct.

A fisheries biologist holds a living dwarf clutch.

A fisheries biologist holds a living dwarf clutch.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

On Monday, they took the rare and drastic step of urging Home Secretary Deb Haaland to use her emergency powers and invoke the federal Endangered Species Act on behalf of the Clear Lake hitch.

“Bring that chic going back will require a bold plan of action devised by people with the power to move mountains,” said Ron Montez, tribal preservationist for the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians.

“I have almost no faith in state or federal officials to salvage this chic and our way of life,” said Montez, 72. “Of course a miracle could happen.”

Ron Montez at Middle Creek

Ron Montez, tribal preservationist for the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians, stands by Middle Creek where hitchhikers spawn.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

A favorable turn came on Nov. 3 when the California Fish and Game Commission urged US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams to list the endangered fish in an emergency.

The Clear Lake clutch was designated a threatened species under California’s Endangered Species Act in 2014. Since then, however, their number has dropped to almost zero, according to recent surveys.

“Federal safeguards would provide additional financial and regulatory resources,” the commission said, and require critical habitat restoration. It would also prohibit harming or harassing the species, which is not currently required under state wildlife legislation.

However, some causes of the hitch’s decline seem extraordinarily difficult to fix: persistent drought, mercury pollution, gravel mining, an overburdened water distribution system, pesticides and runoff from vineyards and marijuana crops, and predatory non-native wild fish.

In any case, “we’re still awaiting a response from the service,” said Samantha Murray, president of the five-member state regulatory body.

Luis Santana wades in the water at Middle Creek.

Luis Santana, fisheries biologist for the Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, wades in the water in search of a hitch in Middle Creek.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

The spring 2023 spawning season is crucial for the continued survival of the Clear Lake clutch, scientists say. That’s because the last successful spawning was observed in 2017.

“Hitch has a six-year lifespan,” said Meg Townsend, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “So what is happening before our eyes is equivalent to a human family that remains childless for 50 years.”

But until its fate is known for certain, Michael Fris, a field representative at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said his agency is unlikely to list the hitch in an emergency.

Low water level in the Konocti Vista Marina

Low water level at Konocti Vista Marina where boats can no longer access Clear Lake.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“We already treat the towbar as a species of high conservation importance,” he said. “And while survey data shows really low population numbers, we think the chances of the tow hitch dying out anytime soon are awfully low.”

The agency is expected to make a final decision on whether to list the hitch by 2025, which some argue may be too late to save the species.

This type of conversation prompted the Center for Biological Diversity, along with the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians, the Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, and the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, to submit their emergency list application to Haaland .

All those involved agree that intervention under the Federal Species Protection Act is an act of desperation. Only two species have been listed as federally endangered in the past 20 years: the Miami blue butterfly in 2011 and the Dixie Valley toad in Nevada earlier this year.

Low water levels along Middle Creek.

Low water levels along Middle Creek, the last creek where the hitch can successfully spawn.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Unlike many endangered species struggles in the past, this isn’t a charismatic creature like the bald eagle, sea otter, or spotted owl that has been weakened and cornered by human progress.

The hitch is a 12-inch long minnow found only in and around the oldest, largest, and perhaps the most polluted and wildfire-prone watershed in California. In 2020, the Lake County region was charred by six of the 20 largest wildfires in state history.

Despite its name, spring-fed Clear Lake is as cloudy as pea soup. With a width of up to 13 km and a length of 40 km, it is the largest natural lake in California. In the summer, the water warms up to 78 degrees and is fringed with slimy blooms of green algae that float to the surface and rot.

An emergency list would likely have an immediate impact on Lake County residents.

It has been hitch’s misfortune to require adequate river flow in February, March and April to migrate from the lake to the spawning beds, while agricultural interests require water to thaw their vineyards.

Ron Montez stands over a spawning ground.

Elder Ron Montez, left, stands on Ben Hill Road over a culvert that channels water from Adobe Creek in Kelseyville. The creek is a hitch spawning ground.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“An emergency list would force people to consider alternatives to the way water is used in this region,” said Sarah Ryan, environmental director for the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians.

Aside from the water flows, the prospect of an emergency hitch list raises other economically significant issues related to the lake’s food chain: zooplankton are eaten by allice shad, crayfish, and hitch, favored by monster catfish and largemouth bass.

Clear Lake entrepreneurs host dozens of professional bass tournaments each year, supported by participants from around the world.

The most popular baits at local tackle shops are replica hitch hooks, which cost up to $180 each. Other lures are made to resemble juvenile followers and are sold under a slogan some people believe mocks the creature’s cultural importance to the Pomo people: “The All-American Trash Fish.”

Fishing lures designed to look like a hitch hang from a display stand.

Fishing lures designed to look like a hitch hang from a display stand.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Over at Clearlake Outdoors, a sporting goods store on the south end of the lake, veterans still talk about how local kids had a tradition of “hitchhiking” and hitting the hitch to death with baseball bats for fun as they climbed creeks to spawn in spring.

They also rail at the thought of new special protections for non-wild fish that interfere with human pastimes for any reason, including rhythmic hitch rides.

After all, they say, environmentalists have long complained about the way fishing tournaments practice “catch and release” rules – bringing big bass back into the lake so they can feed on more hooks.

“The reason our bass get so big is because they like to eat hitch,” mused David Burress, owner of Clearlake Outdoors.

“So when clients ask me, ‘Where can I catch the biggest bass of my life?’ ‘ he added, ‘I send them to places where people can be.’

This sort of banter and lore suggests that unless government agencies give in to Native American concerns, they are headed for a showdown of complicated and competing values.

“The way some people ridicule the hitch makes me wonder what they think about the people who eat them,” lamented Robert Geary, director of cultural resources at Upper Lake’s Habematolel Pomo.

The crux of the matter is that the Pomo people were here first and, unlike many immigrants, did not view their native attitudes and lifestyles as an expendable price of living in America.

However, their modern history is mostly told through economic hardship, rip-offs, massacres and environmental degradation.

A mural honoring Vanessa Yvette Niko along Main St. in Upper Lake

A mural honoring Vanessa Yvette Niko of the Habematolel Pomo tribe adorns an exterior wall of Habematolel Hall along Main Street in Upper Lake.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

On a recent cold and rainy morning, Montez was strolling with a cane along a stream where his ancestors had stopped every spring without interruption for more than 11,000 years.

What he saw and felt made him feel that the small part of his people’s earth was out of balance.

“It’s not just the lake and the streams,” he said, eyeing the waves with badly disguised anger and frustration.

“We’ve never seen so many drug overdoses, suicides, murders, cases of cancer and diabetes,” he said. “I know this because, as a spiritual leader, I have been asked to conduct 50 funeral services this year alone – far more than ever.

“Our people believe that the Creator is sending a message,” he added. “We need to try harder to do things right.”

https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-12-06/a-minnow-sacred-to-some-native-americans-nears-extinction A minnow sacred to some Native Americans nears extinction

Alley Einstein

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