After Almost Going Extinct, a Rare Species of Lamprey in Oregon Makes a Comeback

Lamprey:Β  The Oregon lamprey, the smallest in the state, has been reintroduced to the lake that bears its name after being nearly wiped out.

The Miller Lake lamprey is exclusively found in Miller Lake and the watershed around it in the southern Oregon Cascades. It grows to a maximum length of only three to six inches and subsists parasitically on other fish.

Rare Species of Lamprey in Oregon Makes a Comeback

Ben Clemens, the lamprey coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that 70 years ago, the fish was nearly destroyed because of concerns that it was damaging the brown and rainbow trout that had been stocked in the lake as game fish.

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The Miller Lake lamprey was originally thought to be a subspecies of the common lamprey, but officials began trying to remove the fish when they realized it was killing trout.

“At the time, they didn’t know the species, but they were worried about it because these were sport fisheries they were trying to sustain,” Clemens said. They began installing logs and screens in creeks that fed into the lake in an effort to stop lamprey from reproducing there.

Rare Species of Lamprey in Oregon Makes a Comeback
Rare Species of Lamprey in Oregon Makes a Comeback

Clemens added that authorities took things farther by erecting a barrier further downstream from Miller Lake.

To kill off the species, “they sprayed toxaphene, a highly poisonous pesticide, into the lake and its tributaries,” Clemens explained.

Miller Lake lamprey wasn’t recognized as a distinct species until the 1970s when scientists at Oregon State University examined fossils.

“At that point in time, they were supposed to be extinct,” Clemens added.

By the early 1990s, the tiny lamprey had migrated far downstream from their natural habitat. In 2005, the state lifted the downstream barrier and issued a conservation plan, making it one of the earliest in the state for fish species.

In an effort to replenish the fish population in the lake, state officials 2010 began translocating juvenile lamprey, collecting them from the lake’s outlet and releasing them in upstream streams.

When several of the group went fishing at the lake this past summer, they discovered that their dreams had come true.

They retrieved a number of trout with fresh lamprey wounds, Clemens added. The fact that they were able to locate the lamprey indicates that they are once again thriving in the lake.

The lampreys of Miller Lake are not easy mascots for environmental causes. They are little in size and parasitic in nature. They are located in an outlying region of the state, so you might not even know they exist unless you went in search of them.

However, the species may trace its ancestry all the way back to the Stone Age. Fossil lampreys have been dated to between 400 and 600 million years ago, well before the time of the dinosaurs. Clemens claims that there is no difference between ancient lamprey and modern-day lamprey because neither has evolved very much.

For around 500 million years until humans started seeing them as an issue in the 1970s, this species had a rather peaceful existence.

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As Clemens pointed out, the issue that they were believed to produce never existed. Although they parasitically feed on trout, Clemens claims there is no indication they represent a threat to larger game fish or people.

However, they do contribute to environmental well-being in a variety of ways, including providing shelter for aquatic insects, recycling nutrients, and serving as food for larger fish, birds, and mammals.

This, according to Clemens, is what makes the lamprey’s return to its native lake such a triumph.

“It’s so thrilling,” he exclaimed. This is progressing more rapidly than we expected, and in light of the widespread pessimism around the state of the world, it is heartening to see the fruition of conservation efforts personally.”

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