Chi Council for the Clear Lake Hitch

Newspaper articles and commentaries

return to home page

Saving the Clear Lake hitch: Workshop explains complex factors affecting threatened native fish
Lake County News, December 9, 2012
by Elizabeth Larson

Community members had the chance to learn about both the Endangered Species Act listing process as well as a threatened native fish, the Clear Lake hitch, at a Dec. 3 workshop in Lakeport. read more

 

Guest commentary: Protection, restoration of endangered Clear Lake fish is everyone's business

Lake County Record-Bee, October 9, 2012
By Jeff Miller

Ted Elliott's recent Op-Ed about the Clear Lake hitch was full of misinformation, fear-mongering about the potential impacts of providing Endangered Species Act protections for this imperiled fish, and confusion about the role of federal and state wildlife agencies in recovering our native fish and wildlife ("Protection, restoration should be determined by local government" Sept. 1).

Clear Lake hitch have long been an important part of the natural and cultural heritage of Clear Lake. These fish once spawned in nearly every tributary of the lake, likely numbering in the millions, and were a vital part of the Clear Lake ecosystem. Their abundant numbers provided food for birds, fish, other wildlife and native people. Now hitch spawn regularly in only two streams. There are now just a few thousand of them left and those that survive remain acutely vulnerable to water diversion and pumping, drought, invasive species and pollutants. If you care about water quality, natural resources, cultural heritage or tourism, there are myriad reasons to help protect and recover this once plentiful fish and restore the Clear Lake ecosystem they depend on.

Elliot's criticism relies on non-issues such as whether the Clear Lake hitch is a valid subspecies. It seems clear he didn't read the listing petition that he claims to be so "disturbed" by.

To set the record straight, the California Department of Fish and Game, California native fish expert Peter Moyle and numerous fisheries biologists who have evaluated hitch, tested their DNA or published peer-reviewed reports in environmental journals agree that the Clear Lake hitch is a valid subspecies and a distinct population. It is found only in Clear Lake and its tributaries; Clear Lake hitch do not occur in the Russian River drainage.

Further, Elliot does not appear to have expertise with fish or aquatic ecology (in fact, his employer was a U.S. Department of Agriculture program best known for killing native wildlife on behalf of agricultural interests). His characterization of endangered species protections as a "barrier to growth" or "layer of bureaucracy" reveals his utter disinterest in a frank discussion of why this formerly abundant species is in trouble and what we can reasonably do to reverse its decline.

It's no surprise that agricultural interests that have enjoyed unfettered ability to divert water, block streams, remove native vegetation and apply pesticides in the Clear Lake basin are concerned about changes in the regulatory climate if protections are put in place for the hitch. But it there's going to be a debate, it should be based on facts about the cause of the hitch's decline and what reasonable solutions we have at hand, not misinformation and false accusations.

Elliot misstates existing water rights policies and overstates the potential effects of an endangered listing on farming practices and water rights. There are simply no examples in California where water rights have been severely curtailed or eliminated due to endangered fish, including salmon or steelhead. There are a number of relatively painless ways water users can change operations to benefit hitch streams, such as water conservation and efficiency, changing season of diversion, and water storage and strategic release, that would have no impact on water rights. Elliot also incorrectly states that we have advocated eliminating largemouth bass and other introduced game fish in the lake. Our petition thoroughly discusses the impacts the 17 species of invasive fish introduced into Clear Lake have had on native fish. We have lost seven native fish species (including one endemic fish) from Clear Lake and only five other native fish species beside the hitch remain. Our petition suggests some potential management approaches such as investigating the impact of largemouth bass predation on the hitch population and developing (with input from bass fishers) an action plan to reduce bass predation. We have not advocated any actions until the issues are studied, and no one at this point has suggested eliminating any fish.

The petitions we submitted to federal and state agencies to protect the hitch were based on the best available scientific information. Sources included the state departments of Fish and Wildlife and of Pesticide Regulation, studies by Clear Lake tribes, surveys by the local Chi Council in hitch spawning streams, and surveys and literature by numerous fisheries biologists. That's hardly "inadequate information," as Elliot asserts. State biologists have known since at least the 1980s that the lake's hitch runs were in trouble when the Department of Fish and Game published "Fish Species of Special Concern in California." Since then, the evidence of the hitch's decline has only become more robust and troubling. If we wait and do nothing, as Elliot seems to suggest, there would be no surviving hitch to protect by the time there was enough information to convince him.

The one point we agree with Elliot on is that local government should lead the way in protecting endangered wildlife. Unfortunately, in the case of the hitch, as with hundreds of other declining species around the country, that has not happened. That's why we have the Endangered Species Act. It's a safety net for imperiled wildlife and plants, a critically important triage emergency program to protect the remaining individuals, stem the causes of decline, protect essential habitats and initiate projects to recover the populations of species on the edge of extinction.

Clear Lake hitch are point of pride and a cultural component for residents of Clear Lake, but they are also a public trust resource for all Californians and all Americans. That is why state and federal protections and recovery efforts are important and why everyone will have a say during the public process if the wildlife agencies determine an endangered or threatened listing should be proposed. Everyone take a deep breath there will be a thorough public review and comment period if any listing is proposed.

It will take all of us, including local government, tribes, local residents, state and federal agencies, biologists, conservation groups and agricultural interests to keep this species around for future generations and begin to repair and restore the Clear Lake ecosystem. Investments we make in recovery measures for hitch, such as removing or retrofitting barriers to fish migration, improving instream water flows, restoring fish to former spawning streams, and reducing predation by invasive fish near the mouths of spawning streams will also benefit many other native wildlife species in the Clear Lake basin, and could very well improve water quality, promote tourism, renew cultural identity and help the local economy.


Protected status sought for Clear Lake minnow species

Santa Rosa Press Democrat, September 28, 2012
by Glenda Anderson

Clear Lake hitch, the super-sized minnows found only in Lake County waterways, were once so plentiful they clogged streams as they migrated to and from spawning grounds. ³You could hardly ride a horse across a creek,² said Lake County attorney Peter Windrem, a fourth-generation resident of Big Valley, which stretches between Lakeport and Kelseyville. He recalls chasing hitch on horseback in Kelsey Creek as a boy in the 1950s. ³It was sort of a sport for young people,² he said. Locals also would catch them with spear-like gigs, hunt them with bats and kill them with rocks. They were a traditional food for Native Americans and an abundant food source for animals. including hungry bears emerging from hibernation. read more


National Geographic News Watch, September 28, 2012
by Brian Clark Howard

This week, The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. and California state governments to protect a large minnow called the Clear Lake hitch as an endangered species. According to the Center, the fish is found only in Northern California¹s Clear Lake and its tributaries. read more


Clear Lake hitch focus of state, federal Endangered Species Act applications

Lake County News, September 26, 2012
by Elizabeth Larson

One of Clear Lake¹s natives species is the focus of new state and federal Endangered Species Act applications submitted on Tuesday. Estimating that the Clear Lake hitch¹s numbers have plummeted from millions to, more recently, a few thousand, the Center for Biological Diversity on Tuesday petitioned to protect the hitch ­ a large minnow found only in Clear Lake and its tributaries ­ under both the federal Endangered Species Act and the state¹s Endangered Species Act. read more


Conservationist of the Year: Chi Council

Lake County Record-Bee, April 29, 2009
By Tiffany Revelle

The Chi Council was named Conservationist of the Year Tuesday during a Lake County Board of Supervisors meeting.

The Lake County Fish and Wildlife Committee (LCFWC) selected the Chi Council for the award because of its efforts to protect the Clear Lake hitch, a native species of minnow found only in Clear Lake.

"This is truly a Lake County effort, and one that everybody should be proud of," LCFWC Chairman Greg Giusti said.

"Chi" is the Pomo name for the now extinct Clear Lake split-tail, a distant relative of the Clear Lake hitch, according to council President Peter Windrem. The Chi Council launched a grassroots effort in 2004 to monitor the hitch's annual spawning runs, according to Giusti, who presented the award. He said the group coordinated the volunteer effort to study the species and protect it from extinction.

"Their migration and spawning is awesome to watch," Windrem said. "Only 30 years ago, vast numbers of hitch filled the creeks all around Clear Lake to spawn. Now Adobe Creek and Kelsey Creek are the only creeks with significant runs. We worry about the future of this unique fish." Windrem said the hitch are important to Pomo culture and provide food for bass, osprey, eagles and otters. He said the reasons for the hitch's declining numbers are not fully understood. Speculation includes a damming effect created by bridge supports that have cut off 30 miles of spawning grounds, introduction of non-native fish and food competition.

Giusti praised the council's communication network, which employs phone trees, a Web site and community networking. "They have reached out to a broad coalition of interests, including farmers, the tribes, other organizations active in the community, as well as government and academic institutions. They've really included anybody and anything who's been interested in monitoring this native species," Giusti said. The council's Web site, www.lakelive.info/chicouncil, calls for observers to document sightings of the hitch during the spring, when the adults swim upstream in Clear Lake's tributary creeks to spawn. Observation forms, results, photographs and more information is available at the Web site. Giusti said the Web site is regularly updated with photos and sightings of the fish, and serves as a "go-to place" for council members and the public.

Giusti said the award given Tuesday was the first one LCFWC gave since 1999, and the first time the award was given to a group. "This is a meritorious award given for spectacular work in the name of conserving Lake County's natural resources," Giusti said. "Certainly there are a number of good people and good projects out there that have not been recognized. So it was the desire of the committee this year to take it seriously and cast a broad net to try and find someone or some group that is deserving of this award."


Hitch spring run begins in local creeks

Lake County News, March 20, 2009
by Elizabeth Larson

The streams are running, and so are the hitch. The hitch ­ Lavinia exilicauda chi ­ is a fish that's both native to Clear Lake and important to local Pomo culture. Beginning last week observers began spotting schools of hitch making the spring run in local creeks Read more


Catching Chi with a stick

Lake County Record-Bee, April 8, 2006
by Terre Logsdon

If you stood on Bell Hill Road Friday afternoon, you might have heard what you thought sounded like popcorn popping. Actually, it was the sound of Clear Lake Chi launching themselves out of Adobe Creek and slamming into the metal culverts that run under the road as they attempted to swim upstream to spawn. Meanwhile, nearby, several Pomo youths had their first experience fishing for Chi or hitch as they're sometimes known in Adobe Creek, using a traditional method hitting the fish with a stick.

That one of the kids lost a sneaker in the process and could only watch it float quickly downstream in the cold water didn't matter. The important thing was that they were learning about, and participating in, an ancient tradition.

Robert Geary, a member of the Elem Colony of Pomo Indians and Lake County Chi Council, who also works in the Environmental Department at Robinson Rancheria, brought his three children and a friend to Adobe Creek at Bell Hill Crossing on Friday to teach them about the Chi, which is listed by the California Department of Fish and Game as a species of special concern.

"We're trying to preserve the fish," Geary said, "and our culture."

The Chi was an important part of the Pomo diet, Geary said, because the fish, when dried and salted, preserves well. "It would sustain us when other food was short," he said.

Robinson Rancheria received a Tribal Wildlife Grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004 to benefit the Chi, and Geary said that they are doing water testing in tributaries to Clear Lake, where the Chi live most of the year until spawning time.

The Chi Council is still looking for more volunteers to help monitor the fish through their migration. Their next meeting is at 2 p.m. April 28 [2006] at the Lake County Courthouse. For more information, visit www.lakelive.org/chicouncil


Clover Creek Diversion Weir modification to begin


Lake County Record-Bee, March 8, 2006
by Terre Logsdon

UPPER LAKE -- The Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians and the Lake County Watershed Protection District have signed a memorandum of agreement and plans are under way which will help the Clear Lake Chi (known also as the hitch) and moderate sediment and gravel flows in Clover Creek.

Robinson Rancheria received a Tribal Wildlife Grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004 to benefit the Chi. Diana Hershey, the tribe's environmental director, said that $170,000 of the grant is for the diversion. "We have funded a habitat restoration position for the tribe to do Chi monitoring and counting on five or six creeks," Hershey said.The weir has blocked the Chi from spawning in the creek entirely, Hershey said.

This grant is also being used to fund interns from the University of California, Davis who will tag juvenile Chi so they can be monitored, Hershey explained. "We don't know if they return to the same streams they were born in when they spawn like salmon do," Hershey said.

 

The concrete Clover Creek Diversion Weir will be modified, thanks to a grant the Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The weir will be redesigned to allow spawning Clear Lake Chi (hitch) to go upstream and gravel to flow downstream. (Record-Bee/Terre Logsdon)

Tom Smythe, the county's water resource engineer said, "When the hitch go to spawn, they come up the creek towards the concrete weir, but they can't get over it."

And what's also problematic for the county and Upper Lake residents is that gravel and sediment can't get through it. "The creeks move sediment," Smythe said. "The sediment comes down the creeks, and has filled in behind the weir." After the flooding in 1998, 12,000 yards of gravel upstream from the weir were removed, Smythe explained. Within a few years, Smythe added, the gravel had completely filled back in. He said clearing out the gravel and sediment is a very expensive process.

To address the spawning barrier and help gravel flow past the weir, modifications to the weir will begin this summer, thanks to the grant. A notch will be cut into the weir that will allow gravel to flow downstream and the hitch to swim upstream, Smythe said. When the hitch run is complete, Smythe said flash boards hollow, stackable metal boards can be put in the notch to close the opening. The county is in the process of hiring a consultant to do the design, Smythe said. The environmental studies, he noted, are already finished. Hershey said the project would be completed by this October.


Lake County's Clear Lake Hitch Spawning Migration Begins

Lake County Record-Bee, March 4, 2005
Brackets [ ] indicate cuts made in the story as submitted.

The Chi Council for the Clear Lake hitch reports that the annual spring spawning migration has begun. A few dozen hitch (lavinia exilicauda chi) were spotted moving up Scotts Creek on February 6, and on February 23 a similar number were seen in Green Acres near Clark Drive. [The latter group was not swimming in a creek or even in a drainage ditch, but flopping around on soggy ground in a nearby field. The observer assumed that they were in trouble, but Chi Council Chairman Peter Windrem reassured them: "That is what hitch are supposed to do. They will make their way back OK. Sometimes they will be stranded, but most frequently not."]

West and East Lake Resource Conservation District leader Greg Dills observed several hundred hitch in the same field the next day, [along with several herons feasting on what must have been the easiest meal of their lives.] He also saw a group of hitch making their way up Cole Creek in the "normal" way; other observers reported seeing fish in Adobe and Kelsey Creeks on February 25 as well.

[Obviously, we still have a lot to learn about the behavior of this unique creature.] The Chi Council is actively enlisting volunteers to fill in the blanks by observing the spawning run -- it's easy, it's fun, and it may help pull the hitch back from the brink of extinction. To learn more, visit the council's website (www.lakelive.org/chicouncil), send an email to chicouncil@lakelive.org, or call Victoria at 994-1931.


Effort to Preserve the Hitch

Chi Council seeks to save fish native to Clear Lake
Lake County Record-Bee, January 25, 2005

by John Lindblom

FINLEY--Sixteen Lake County people met in a 100-year-old one-room school house on East Finley Road last Thursday to initiate a fishing expedition.

The fish is the Clear Lake hitch, which Pomo Indians call the "chi." The 16 people, who form the Chi Council for the Clear Lake hitch, are not out to catch the fish. What they want is to catch sightings of it in area creeks and sloughs in an effort to keep it from slipping into extinction.

How likely is it that the hitch will disappear?

"We don't know, but what we're trying to do right now is get ahead of the curve," said Victoria Brandon, a Chi Council officer. "There is not an abundance of them as there was before, but they're still seen and they're still spawning."

If the hitch disappears, with it will go an important part of Lake County history. When its cousin, the Clear Lake splittail, vanished in the 1970s, the hitch became the last species of fish endemic to Clear Lake. As near as anyone knows, there are no hitch anywhere else on earth.

If the hitch disappears, with it will go an important part of Lake County history. When its cousin, the Clear Lake splittail, vanished in the 1970s, the hitch became the last species of fish endemic to Clear Lake. As near as anyone knows, there are no hitch anywhere else on earth.

Peter Windrem, president of the Chi Council for the Clear Lake Hitch, points out an area where hitch may be sighted to council members at Adobe Creek Bridge on East Finley Road. The council is seeking to learn why the number of hitch, a species of fish that is endemic to Lake County, is dwindling.

A second reason for the save-the-hitch project is its place in Pomo Indian culture. "The hitch was what got us through the hard times, said Robert Geary of the Elem Colony of Pomo Indians. "We would catch them by the bunches, then take them back home and clean and string them. We salted them so that in the winter time they were kind of like a jerky."

Geary said a tribal custom was built around this process.

"It was a bonding type thing," he said. "Families would come out and fish, spend time together, tell stories, stuff like that. When I was a little boy, my mother and two or three of her sisters would get all the little kids to come and fish. You used to be able to come and see them. They were in big black bunches."

But no more. Nowadays, sightings of the hitch are spasmodic. No one is sure why. Is it one reason, or a combination of reasons? Geary thinks it's contamination of water from the vineyards. Brandon speculates that it could be they are being eaten or prevented from spawning by the bass, a natural predator, or perhaps just a natural shift in population.

  "The shad up the creek compete with the chi," said Diana Hershey, Water Resource Manager for Robinson Rancheria. "It is not a predator situation. They are fighting each other for food. But bass are predators, and if you see them coming up the creek that¹s a bad sign."

 

Robert Geary and Diana Hershey discuss how tribal customs were built around catching hitch

 

One possibility the Chi Council is considering is that the hitch is being prevented from moving through creeks by dams and other obstructions. So, as one of its first actions, the group assigned individuals to monitor various county waterways for sightings. They include Kelsey Creek, Adobe and Highland Springs, Seigler Canyon, Middle and Clover creeks, Scotts and Hendricks creeks, Manning and Thompson,Cole Creek, McGaugh Shough and Hill Creek, Forbes and Schindler.

The group will also interview elders of the Pomo tribe to create an oral history of the fish. The Chi Council hopes to complie baseline data on the hitch that probably should have been ferreted out before, but wasn't, largely because the emphasis simply hasn't been there. "Fish and Game has a mandate directed toward fish that people catch and eat; hitch are not. They're edible, but kind of bony and muddy. and they're not a sport fish, so they fall under the radar," said Brandon. For example, there is currently a furor over the possible extinction of the bull trout, homogeneous to the northern Rockies and northwest.

Peter Windrem, the council's president, said the study of the hitch could go on for decades. He is delighted with the energy shown by the group, which includes individuals from a variety of fields, such as medicine, law and agriculture, as well as tribal officials and scientists. "Somehow, the time is right that the people are really interested in this fish," said Windrem. "It's a bellwether for the general conditions of the streams."

Although the largest school of hitch seen in recent months has numbered no more than 300, the case for reversing a decline is not hopeless. "Last year we found hitch in creeks where they hadn¹t been for years and years and years," said Hershey, "so, yeah, there's reason for optimism."

Windrem believes that because the hitch is endemic to the lake and has been here for thousands of years there is a responsibility to perpetuate them. "Extinction," he said, "can happen and it's something that shouldn't happen."