Five states squirm as bull trout declines

  • "Cannibal of trout family" has gained new respect

    Mont. Dept. Fish, Wildlife, Parks
  • Sketch of bull trout

    Diane Sylvain

Note: this article is one of several in this issue about the Endangered Species Act.

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 trout.

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 Rockies.

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 thrives.

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 protection plan.

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 activities."

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 species.

"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.

But 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 through interbreeding.

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 region.

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 trouble.

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 help.

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.

Then 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.

Shortly before 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."

But critics say the states have failed to tackle the most difficult issues surrounding bull trout restoration, especially habitat protection.

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.

Environmentalists contend 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 survival.

"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 locale.

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.

"It's 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 fish.

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 Idaho.

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 208/385-4218. n

Paul Larmer is associate editor of High Country News. Former intern Meg Krehbiel contributed to this story.

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