Agency ordered to study trout - again

  • Bull trout, holding on for dear life

    Bill Buseman and Bob Scholl
 

The beleaguered bull trout has been given another chance to make the endangered species list. U.S. District Judge Robert Jones ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review its 1994 decision that the fish doesn't warrant immediate protection because other species have more pressing needs.

Jones called parts of the Fish and Wildlife Service finding "capricious and arbitrary," and gave the agency four months to review its decision and present a new finding.

"The recommendation of (the agency's) own field biologists was to list the bull trout as highly endangered," says Mike Bader, head of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the groups that originally asked the agency to study the fish in 1992. "But somewhere along the decision-making process, someone decided to override their own experts." The group later sued the agency because it didn't like the reasons for leaving the fish off the endangered list.

The agency stands by its findings. "Many times the listing staff will raise questions and concerns over the work of the field biologists and ask them to get more information that will affect the final decision," says Susan Saul, deputy public affairs director at the Pacific regional office in Portland, Ore. "That's not unusual."

Saul says the order limiting the review to the 1994 record may handcuff the agency. More recent science and research could lead to a different conclusion, she says.

The first non-Indians to catalog the bull trout were Lewis and Clark, who called it the "salmon trout" because it can grow to 20 or 30 pounds. In those times, the trout choked many streams west of the Divide with their bodies during spawning season. But no longer. Researchers estimate more than 50 percent of bull trout habitat has been degraded by dams, silted in by eroded soil from logging or poisoned by agricultural run-off. Other streams have simply been sucked dry for irrigation.

The remaining fragmented populations have also been decimated, Bader says. And most populations continue to decline. The latest studies on Montana's Flathead River drainage show North Fork nest counts declined from 83 in 1995 to 52 this year. On the Middle Fork, nests declined by more than 50 percent from last year.

"They don't tolerate degradation of water quality," says Bader, who points out that many bull trout populations disappear once a stream flows beyond the boundaries of a wilderness area.

Besides potentially benefiting the trout, Judge Jones' decision is an indicator of just how important the judicial system is to the environmental movement, Bader believes. "Of the three branches of government, the courts are the only institution still unfettered by politics," he says. "In that forum, only law abides."

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Mont.