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Trout wriggles into a sagebrush rebellion

  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised the stakes in a conflict between environmentalists and Elko County, Nev., in June, when it proposed critical habitat for the endangered bull trout along the Jarbidge River. The agency proposed designating 131 miles of streams in Idaho and Nevada as critical habitat — which sets aside land essential to the survival of an endangered species, and may bring special management restrictions — after being sued by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of Wild Swan.

Within the habitat sits South Canyon Road, a mile-and-a-half long dirt road that washed out in 1995, and now lies at the center of a running feud over county rights. The Forest Service halted its plans to rebuild the road in 1998 after Trout Unlimited raised concerns that sediment from another washout could threaten bull trout. The construction delay prompted numerous attempts by shovel-wielding county-rights activists to rebuild the road.

Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service must weigh the options in a forthcoming environmental impact statement on rebuilding the road, before the Forest Service formally releases it this fall.

"I don’t think (critical habitat designation) is going to make a significant difference with respect to road options," says Bob Williams, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s state supervisor in Nevada. "The listing of the critical habitat in and of itself does not stop anything."

Michael Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, disagrees, pointing out that development projects in critical habitat face a higher level of scrutiny before they can proceed. Under the Endangered Species Act alone, "they just have to show the species won’t go extinct," Garrity says. "With critical habitat, they have to show it won’t hurt the habitat."