What's spotted, lives in pristine habitat on national forests and could put some loggers out of work if protected under the Endangered Species Act?
No, it's not that
feathered denizen of the ancient forests, the northern spotted owl.
It's a large predatory fish called the bull
While far less known than the infamous
owl, the bull trout is beginning to make its mark on the interior
forests of the Pacific Northwest and the Northern
The plight of the cold-water-loving
species has spawned lawsuits from environmentalists who say timber
harvesting and grazing in the region have decimated its habitat.
They want the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service to list the bull trout
under the Endangered Species Act and the Forest Service to adopt a
hands-off approach to the roadless watersheds where it still
The threat of a listing has prodded
Idaho and Montana to create their own plans. The states say they
can recover the species without the ironclad requirements of the
act. The Forest Service, which manages the best remaining bull
trout habitat, has also finally begun to develop a habitat
How these plans will be
coordinated, and whether they will meet the standards of the act
or, for that matter, help the bull trout, is unclear.
"This is another snake pit," says Bruce Farling
of the Montana chapter of Trout Unlimited. "We're talking about a
fish with a big range and a lot of potential impacts on forest
Coordinating five states and 34
national forests to recover bull trout will make bringing wolves
back to Yellowstone seem easy, observers warn. But the debate could
also point toward a more flexible aproach to protecting endangered
"We want to prove we can manage the bull
trout - that a made-in-Montana process with made-in-Montana tools
can work," says Glen Marx, policy director for Montana Gov. Marc
Racicot. "The bull trout affects our economy, our quality of life,
our recreation. Why shouldn't we take the lead in its recovery?"
Once common from the headwaters of Canada's
Yukon River to northern California, the speckled bull trout was
long considered a trash species because it ate other fish. An
article in a 1929 issue of Montana Wild Life labeled bull trout
"the cannibal of the trout family." For years, fishermen collected
a bounty for every bull trout they caught.
then the fish, which is not a trout but a char, began to disappear.
Decades of logging and grazing silted over the clean gravels bull
trout need for spawning. Denuded riverbanks allowed the sun to warm
the cold waters to lethal levels. Wildlife managers introduced
non-native species such as brook trout which out-competed bull
trout in human-altered habitat and diluted its genetic makeup
The fish, which can grow
as long as three feet, retreated to the last wild areas in five
states - Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and a sliver of Nevada
- mostly on public lands. The two largest remaining populations are
in the Flathead Basin of Montana and Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille
Scientists have warned for decades that
logging rates in the interior West were degrading fish habitat,
says Ron Rhew, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service. But only recently have land managers listened.
The bull trout is now viewed as an indicator of
the health of watersheds: When bull trout disappear from a river,
something is out of kilter, Rhew says, and other native fish using
the same watersheds - including "redband" trout and west slope
cutthroat trout - are probably also in
Fearing that not enough was being done
to save the species, in the fall of 1992, the Alliance for the Wild
Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan and the Swan View Coalition
petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bull trout.
After the agency failed to respond within the one-year time limit,
the groups sued.
In June of 1994, the agency
arrived at an awkward conclusion: The species was in serious
trouble and deserved federal protection, but couldn't be listed
because other species needed more
Environmentalists smelled political
meddling, and in March the Associated Press confirmed that
perception. Internal agency memos showed that senior officials in
the Fish and Wildlife Service changed the species' biological
status to avoid a listing, it said.
President Clinton signed a bill placing a six-month moratorium on
the listing of any new species while Congress rewrites the law.
Agency officials say the law prevents them from listing the bull
trout until at least Oct. 1.
Christmas last year, Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus and Gov.-elect Phil
Batt wrote Fish and Wildlife Service director Mollie Beattie urging
her not to list the bull trout. "A decision to proceed with a
listing can only complicate and confound the meaningful
(state-based) efforts already underway."
critics say the states have failed to tackle the most difficult
issues surrounding bull trout restoration, especially habitat
In Montana, where a governor's
roundtable has been meeting monthly since December 1993, roundtable
scientists want temporarily to prohibit any logging within 50 to
100 feet of a river to maintain shade that keeps water cool. The
state land agencies have accepted the proposal, but Plum Creek
Timber Co. officials who sit at the table say the strategy is
"overkill." Current state law, which permits selective cutting in
these buffer zones, provides adequate protection of bull trout
habitat, they say.
such conflicts show why a consensus approach will fail without the
stick of a federal listing.
Glen Marx says the
roundtable's accomplishments shouldn't be undervalued, and points
to a recent ban on bull trout fishing in the Hungry Horse
Reservoir, heftier penalties for poachers and a massive public
information campaign on the species and threats to its
"Some people have the mistaken belief
that if we just stop cutting trees today, we'll restore the bull
trout," he says. "It's just not true." He says the science shows
that poaching, interbreeding with non-native fish, water depletion,
overgrazing and development of private land may be more
deterimental to the fish, depending on the
The Forest Service has taken the most
heat for failing to protect bull trout habitat. Rick Stowell,
director of the regional fisheries program for the Forest Service,
acknowledges that his agency has not moved quickly to protect bull
trout. But the tide is turning, he says.
not that we've buried our heads in the sand on this thing," Stowell
says. "It's just taken us four years to get here."
"Here" is the Inland Native Fish Strategy, the
federal agency's first attempt at developing land-use management
rules for bull trout habitat. The agency announced this spring that
it had assembled a team to develop the rules by the end of May.
Stowell says InFish, as it is called, will
screen all activities on the forests to determine their effect on
riparian areas inhabited by bull trout and other native fish.
InFish will only be in place for the next year and a half until two
massive environmental impact statements are completed for the lower
and upper Columbia River basins (HCN, 9/19/94).
Environmentalists say InFish won't help enough
because the rules don't address lands outside riparian corridors
Cleared land outside the corridors can produce heavy that increase
temperatures and sediment. Some worry that InFish could give the
Fish and Wildlife Service yet another excuse to not list the
The states are also wary. In a letter to
Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas on April 14, Idaho Gov. Phil
Batt, R, said "Implementation of this plan would require major
changes in, or even preclude, the logging of some of the salvage
timber killed in last year's fires." Batt said an ongoing survey of
inland fish in Idaho shows the fish are not in trouble in
Meanwhile, former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus
has announced that he will convene a bull trout summit to
coordinate the growing morass of plans.
"Everybody's doing their own thing, but no one
is sitting down at the table talking with each other," he says. "We
need to address the problem without chucking spears."
But Andrus may have already hurled one of his
own. In a letter to Steve Kelly of Friends of the Wild Swan, one of
the groups seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the bull
trout, he said Kelly is not welcome to come to the conference
because his views would not contribute to an "open discussion."
Andrus' conference will be held June 1 and 2 at
Boise State University in Boise, Idaho. For more, information, call
Paul Larmer is
associate editor of High Country News. Former intern Meg Krehbiel
contributed to this story.