Farmers left high and dry in suckerfish battle

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The White House is under intense pressure to weaken provisions in American laws designed to protect endangered species, as conservatives flock to support several hundred farmers in rain-starved southern Oregon who have been barred this year from drawing water to irrigate their land.

The White House is under intense pressure to weaken provisions in American laws designed to protect endangered species, as conservatives flock to support several hundred farmers in rain-starved southern Oregon who have been barred this year from drawing water to irrigate their land.

Federal officials issued an order in April suspending irrigation rights in the area because severe drought con- ditions had lowered water levels in nearby Upper Klamath Lake so drastically as to imperil two varieties of bottom-feeding suckerfish – both legally protected endangered species.

The ban is still in place, and suddenly the plight of the farmers – many of whom have seen their crops wrecked – is drawing sympathy from conservative groups who have long campaigned for a loosening of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. A similar battle erupted nearly a decade ago, when concern for the spotted owl brought some western logging projects to an abrupt halt.

The two sub-species in question can grow to three feet in length, are almost inedible and have been on the endangered list since 1988.

"It's time to amend the Endangered Species Act," declared Jim Gibbons, a Rep- ublican member of Congress. "We can't save every species, and maybe that's the way it should be."

Members of Congress have formally asked the Interior Department to consider allowing special dispensation to allow the farmers to override the Endangered Species Act and resume irrigation. The last time such an exception was considered was during the battle over the spotted owl.

The controversy comes at a difficult time for the Bush administration. While it might instinctively side with the farmers and the Republican politicians on the issue, it has already suffered in public opinion polls for appearing to be too indifferent to environmental protection priorities.

The US Congress is likely soon to award $20m (£14m) in emergency aid to the area, though the losses of the farmers has been put at $250m (£180m).

Environmental groups have proposed a government programme to buy out the farmers, around 1,400 of whom have been affected by the irrigation ban.

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