A federal court has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a determination by 2024 whether imperiled populations of lake sturgeon will be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Millions of these giant, ancient fish once lived in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basin, but today the population is less than 1% of historic levels.

“We look forward to a decision on endangered or threatened status, which would provide a huge benefit to these swimming fossils known as lake sturgeon,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Sturgeon are ancient survivors, but they need our help to adapt to climate change and deal with past damage to their river and lake habitats. We need to remove key dams to allow sturgeon to repopulate more of their former rivers.”

Lake sturgeon live primarily in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin. There are thought to be distinct and isolated lake sturgeon populations in Lake Superior, western Lake Michigan, the upper Mississippi River basin and the Ohio River basin.

The lake sturgeon is an ancient fish that swam with dinosaurs 200 million years ago. Lake sturgeon can live for up to 100 years, grow more than 8 feet long and weigh nearly 300 pounds. Their numbers have declined more than 99% over the past century because of overfishing, dams and pollution. The United States now has fewer than a dozen large and stable lake sturgeon populations that spawn more than 1,000 adult fish.

“With this ruling, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can no longer skirt its legal obligation to make this important listing determination,” said Mark Templeton, clinical professor and director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, whose lawyers and students represent the environmental plaintiffs.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned in 2018 for a “threatened” listing under the Endangered Species Act for all lake sturgeon in the country, or alternatively for separate listings of distinct populations as threatened or endangered. The Service made an initial finding in August 2019 that protecting the lake sturgeon may be warranted, but the agency missed a 12-month deadline for determining whether protection is in fact warranted.

The Center, along with Fishable Indiana Streams for Hoosiers, Hoosier Environmental Council, and Prairie Rivers Network, filed a lawsuit in 2020 to speed the listing process. The organizations were represented by the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

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Abrams Environmental Law Clinic
The Abrams Environmental Law Clinic attempts to solve some of the most pressing environmental problems throughout Chicago, the State of Illinois, and the Great Lakes region.
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