After living in legal limbo for three years, bull trout will get a recovery boost. On Jan. 16, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it had settled a lawsuit with two environmental groups and agreed to designate critical habitat for the fish.
"It's another step on the long road to the recovery of the bull trout," says David Merrill, head of the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
The Alliance and the Montana-based Friends of the Wild Swan sued the Wildlife Service in January 2001 over its failure to determine critical habitat for five populations of bull trout that were listed as threatened in 1998 and 1999. A critical-habitat designation focuses the protection effort onto specific areas and imposes restrictions on federal actions that could affect them. The Endangered Species Act mandates that the designation come within a year of listing, but the agency says it lacked the funds to carry out the project.
Critical habitat "will provide another increment of protection," says Jenny Valdivia, spokeswoman for the FWS's regional office in Portland, but it won't cause too much change, since federal-land managers already take bull trout needs into account. Limited funding and numerous lawsuits have created a backlog of critical habitat designations, which in turn generates more lawsuits. "We're in a circular mode," she says.
Under the agreement, the agency will issue final critical-habitat rules for the Columbia Basin and Klamath populations in October 2003 and the western Washington, Nevada and Montana populations in September 2004.