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A good step for bull trout

There’s good news today for bull trout. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released its Final Bull Trout Critical Habitat Designation. The new rule has been a long time coming. The update is a review of the 2005 Bush administration rule and increases the amount of protected habitat by nearly 80%. In 2002, the USFWS proposed protecting bull trout habitat on 18,450 miles of streams and 532,700 acres of lakes in four states. Deputy assistant Secretary of the Interior, Julie McDonald, using no scientific knowledge whatsoever and after consultation with corporate lobbyists, arbitrarily reduced that amount by more than three-quarters. An internal investigation found that McDonald had “injected herself personally and profoundly in a number of Endangered Species Act decisions” and had interfered with the critical habitat designation. “She instructed agency biologists to abandon the best available science, to exclude all federal lands and exclude all lands that had any “plan” governing land use whether that plan was adequate or specific to bull trout.”

In 2004 the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Wild Swan sued the Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to designate an adequate amount of critical habitat to ensure the survival and recovery of bull trout in the Columbia and Klamath Basins. In 2009, the federal court ordered USFWS to re-analyze their critical habitat designation. The result was released in January of this year for public comment and the final rule was issued yesterday. The two conservation groups hailed the new designation. “We are thrilled with this final rule,” said Michael Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “After nine years of fighting we think the bull trout finally has a chance for recovery.”

Just how, or whether, the new rule will affect Montana bull trout populations remains to be seen. Bull trout in the upper Clark Fork basin are not directly affected by habitat problems for the most part. The problem facing Montana bull trout, particularly those in the Flathead basin is not habitat, but predation by and competition with, invasive predators. In the justification for the new habitat designation, the USFWS says;

“An extensive network of high-quality spawning and rearing habitat, including many streams with groundwater influence, have historically contributed to a relatively strong bull trout population in the CHSU [Critical Habitat Sub Unit] and may make this CHSU one of the more important bull trout complexes under a variety of changing climate scenarios. However, widespread negative influence of nonnative lake trout introduction and their ongoing expansion has seriously curtailed the existing bull trout productivity in much of this CHSU.”

While the new Critical Habitat Designation is an important milestone on the road to recovering native fish in Montana and the Northwest, there are many steps that need to be taken that do not involve restoring habitat. In the Flathead, we have taken positive steps and have corrected many past practices that degraded bull trout habitat. In the Flathead watershed, two-thirds of the bull trout habitat is already protected as wilderness and national park lands and now by international agreement in the North Fork. We commend the Fish and Wildlife Service for taking this important step and correcting past wrongs but, as Montana Trout Unlimited executive director Bruce Farling explains,

“…while habitat is important and improvements are welcome, most Montana habitat is already perfect – and yet, the fish are still disappearing.  “Bull trout are in trouble in a large part of the range in Montana – the Flathead, for instance, or the Swan – because of non-native species, which has nothing to do with habitat.””

Protection of habitat is a good thing, protecting our Montana native fish will take more. We still need to protect the native fish themselves from invasive species, a changing climate, hydroelectric power operations and poor management decisions. Decisions important to native Montana fish will be made this year and you can be sure that we at the Bugle will keep you informed.

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