The National Wilderness Institute in February petitioned the federal government to protect the Atlantic sturgeon, the largest fish native to the Chesapeake Bay, under the Endangered Species Act.

The group not only says the sturgeon needs protection, but charges the federal government with failing to consider the impacts of the planned new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, located just outside Washington, D.C. on the fish.

The group, in filing its action, deplored the neglect of the species and cited a 1759 letter by George Washington which described the Potomac as a river “well-stocked with with various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year, and in the spring with shad, herring, bass, carp, perch, sturgeon, all in great abundance.” “It’s only fitting that we make this plea on President’s Day, as George Washington was one of the early great commercial fishermen on the Potomac River,” said NWI Executive Director Rob Gordon.

The NWI, a conservative group that has criticized the Endangered Species Act in the past, filed several endangered species-related petitions recently in an effort to hinder the construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

It argues that the government has used a double standard in applying the act, and that it should apply the same criteria to projects around the nation’s Capitol as it uses in the rest of the country.

At a recent news conference, Rep. George Radanovich, R-CA, a longtime critic of the Endangered Species Act, praised the NWI’s action. “We in the West have seen project after project stopped in its tracks over the very statutes that are at issue in this case.”

It’s the second time in recent years that the government has been petitioned to protect the Atlantic sturgeon, which can grow to lengths of 14 feet and weigh 800 pounds. A petition by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in 1997 to have the fish listed as aüthreatened species was rejected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1998. Their review found that although the population had plummeted in the past 100 years, the fish was not so rare as to meet the requirements for listing under the act.

The NWI’s petition takes a different tact, saying the species should be protected under the act’s “similarity of appearance provision.” That provision allows a species to be listed if it is easily confused with a listed species. In this case, the NWI said juvenile Atlantic sturgeon are almost indistinguishable from juvenile shortnose sturgeon, which are listed as endangered and occasionally found in the Bay.

Adult sturgeon, once common, have vanished from most of the Bay, although recent surveys suggest a remnant population may live in the James River. Because it is a long-lived species that relies on sensitive bottom habitats for survival, scientists suggest the recovery of the Atlantic sturgeon would be an indicator of the Bay’s health.