TESTIMONY OF ROBYN THORSON, REGIONAL DIRECTOR, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT OF GOVERNMENT MANAGEMENT, THE FEDERAL WORKFORCE AND THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, REGARDING GREAT LAKES RESTORATION AND MANAGEMENT

July 16, 2003

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am Robyn Thorson, Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Midwest Region – a bureau within the Department of the Interior. I am pleased to appear before you today to discuss the role of the Service in Great Lakes restoration. My statement will address the Service’s responsibilities and authorities for the Great Lakes, outlining the Service’s support for and contributions to a comprehensive strategy for the Great Lakes; our participation in programs to develop and enhance environmental indicators in the Great Lakes ecosystem; and this agency’s continuing work to meet restoration goals for the benefit of fish, wildlife, and the people of this country.

The Service is the primary federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats. In this capacity, the Service takes great interest in Great Lakes restoration, and accordingly, the Government Accounting Office’s report (Report) on the subject. Compiling of the report provided the Service the opportunity to provide information on several relevant issues, including: our existing strategies and partnerships in the Great Lakes; our role in developing and supporting environmental indicators of this ecosystem through our engagement with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Great Lakes National Program Office, the U.S. Policy Committee, and the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) initiatives; and our efforts to restore fish and wildlife resources, as mandated by the Service’s mission and the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act.

The Service’s mission calls on us to work with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats, for the continuing benefit of the American people, and this agency depends on legislation such as the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act and the Great Lakes Legacy Act to carry out that mission. The Service agrees with the Report that planning is critical to our goals, and we strive to implement strategies, programs and partnerships with Great Lakes states, tribes, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, the Great Lakes Commission, the Northeast-Midwest Institute, and others to achieve this purpose.

Let me provide some examples. The bi-national sea lamprey control program represents an effective, comprehensive strategy contributing to restoration goals for the Great Lakes. This is administered through the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and implemented by the Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and many other partners. In operation since 1955, this program is delivering effective control of one of the most damaging invasive species in North America.

Additionally, the Service is signatory to the Joint Strategic Plan for Management of Great Lakes Fisheries, originally adopted in 1981, along with state, provincial, federal, and tribal agencies from the United States and Canada. The Joint Strategic Plan provides an effective framework for strategic planning and management of Great Lakes fish communities, for linkages between fisheries and environmental management, and for accountability among signatory agencies. Under the Joint Strategic Plan, agencies have developed consensus-based objectives for the structure of each of the Great Lakes fish communities, and means of measuring progress toward their achievement. This process further guides the development of species-specific restoration plans and agency operational plans for Great Lakes fisheries. The success of operating under the Joint Strategic Plan is evident on Lake Superior, where lake trout populations have been largely restored, and restoration of coaster brook trout and their habitats is well underway.

Likewise, the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act, initially authorized by Congress in 1990, has enabled the Service to facilitate partnerships with a wide range of federal, state, and local governments and private partners, as well as Canada, to achieve a basin-wide comprehensive program to assess the ecological status of the Great Lakes. The Service is currently preparing a report to Congress covering our activities under the Act from 1998 through 2002.

Finally, the Service directly assists private landowners, townships, county governments, and others with projects that benefit fish and wildlife resources. Through our Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the Coastal Program and Fish Passage Program, the Service provides technical and funding assistance for locally led projects. These programs represent direct implementation of Great Lakes priorities that have positive, local impacts.

The Service is committed to working with our partners in the continuing effort to enhance and restore the natural resources of the Great Lakes ecosystem. To that end, the Service is involved in a host of programs with our partners to improve the ecological health of the system. To address the issue of chemical contaminants as ecological stressors in the Great Lakes, the Service plays a unique role, using principles of ecotoxicology and ecological risk assessment to determine actual or likely effects of contaminants on fish and wildlife. We assist response agencies, including the EPA and state counterparts, in identifying appropriate remedies and we conduct natural resource damage assessments and seek damages to fully restore resources at sites where remediation is complete.

We are often called upon to support protection of ecologically important coastal areas and wetland restoration, and elimination or modification of barriers to allow passage of fish in Great Lakes waterways. To address chemical pollutants in the Great Lakes system, we promote best land use management practices in the watershed, increased efforts to clean up contaminated sediments in Great Lakes bays, harbors and estuaries, and closer coordination among resource management and clean-up agencies to identify sources and effects of pollution and achieve effective cleanup and restoration.

Among the most critical threats to the Great Lakes is that posed by invasive species. Our efforts, and those of our partners and the National Invasive Species Council, are focused on control of existing problems such as sea lamprey, zebra mussel, as well as the threat that Asian carp may pose to the Great Lakes as they appear to be moving up through the Mississippi River system. Construction of the electric barrier in the Illinois waterway is one example of a partnership effort to control invasive species and protect the waters and habitats of the Great Lakes.

In closing, Mr. Chairman, the Service agrees that there must be a comprehensive strategy to achieve restoration in the Great Lakes, and that environmental indicators and a monitoring system must be part of any plan to achieve success. Already in place are models for these recommendations, including the Sea Lamprey Control Program, Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act and the indicator frameworks developed under SOLEC. The Service is committed to working with its many partners to carry out a comprehensive program to restore the fish and wildlife resources of the Great Lakes and to enhance and restore the health of this ecosystem. The system faces many threats – from invasive species to contaminants to loss of coastal habitats. The Service stands ready to continue its leadership role in fish and wildlife restoration and to expand its work with partners to make the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem a balanced and healthy environment.

This concludes my testimony. I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee, and I would be pleased to answer any questions you have.