Ruling Gives Bull Trout More Protection

A new future for bull trout begins

I started fishing bull trout back in the early 1990s on western Montana’s Rock Creek. People used to say, “You’re fishing for what?” They only became interested when I would say, “Yea, bull trout. I’ve caught them up to 25 inches long in Rock Creek.”

“Say what?”

Over the years I’ve followed a fight between conservation organizations and the federal government, a wrestling match based on whether the bull trout is worth saving. Until yesterday, if you asked the government, mining, logging and livestock grazing was more important than a bull trout. That was before Tuesday’s ruling that expanded protection for bull trout streams and lakes while making it more difficult for agencies to approve detrimental land practices in western bull trout habitat. I am telling you, THIS IS A SWEET RULING FOR BULL TROUT. They should be able to retain their populations in the habitat they currently reside in, and they should be able to expand a bit, too.

The new ruling protects 19,000 miles of streams—five times the amount protected by a 2005 habitat designation—and 490,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs, which is three times greater than the protection offered in the 2005 ruling.

“Protecting and restoring their habitat contributes not only to the recovery of the species, but to the water quality of rivers and lakes throughout their range,” Fish and Wildlife Pacific Regional Director Robyn Thorson said in a statement.

Typical of high-profile fish and wildlife, all the significant actions by the federal government to restore healthy populations have come out of lawsuits brought by conservation groups, many dating back to the Clinton administration.

Two small Montana conservation groups, Friends of the Wild Swan and Alliance for the Wild Rockies, initially petitioned Fish and Wildlife to list bull trout as a threatened species in 1992. They followed up with seven separate lawsuits to force the agency to comply with the law along the way, winning every one.

The critical habitat designation leaves only a recovery plan to be done.

“Before, if they were going to log or mine any kind of project in bull trout habitat, they just had to see if it would cause the extinction of the entire population throughout the drainage. It’s almost impossible to say that,” said Michael Garrity of Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Now you can’t adversely modify critical habitat with any project. So it’s a much higher bar of protection for bull trout, which should lead to recovery.”

Garrity said they had a similar draft rule during the Clinton administration, but the Bush administration knocked that back to very little before the latest revision.

“We’re going to uncork the good champagne with the idea that this battle is over, and the bull trout won,” Garrity said.

An economic analysis estimates the habitat protections will increase federal government spending $5 million to $7.6 million a year over the next 20 years. Costs include more time for biologists to consider if federal projects will harm bull trout habitat, and for restoring habitat, improving fish passage around dams primarily in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and changing forest management.

The analysis recognized economic benefits from improved water quality, flood protection, aesthetic improvements and recreational fishing, but did not put a value on them.

The bull trout’s critical habitat includes 3,056 miles of streams and 221,471 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Montana; 8,772 miles of streams and 170,218 acres of Idaho lakes and reservoirs; 2,836 miles of streams and 30,256 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Oregon; 3,793 miles of streams, 66,308 acres of lakes and reservoirs, and 754 miles of marine shoreline in Washington state; and 72 miles of streams in Nevada.

Portions of this story were excerpted from the Associated Press and the Missoulian.

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