Conservation groups continue to fight for bull trout

July 17, 2021 4:25 am

Bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) have shown dramatic declines across the contiguous United States and, today, are known or predicted to inhabit watersheds in only 45 percent of their historic range. This documented decline of bull trout led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to formally list the species as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1999. This listing included its historical range in the contiguous United States. One population of significance interest is the distinct populations segment found in the St. Mary and Belly river drainages in Montana and Canada. In 2016, Montana Fish and Wildlife biologists sampled several streams in the St. Mary Drainage to monitor bull trout populations. Additionally, staff have been working with Bureau of Reclamation to work towards providing fish passage and entrainment at Reclamation’s St Mary Diversion. (Photo by USFS via Flickr)

It’s well known and scientifically documented that bull trout, Montana’s largest native salmonid, require clean, cold, and connected rivers and streams to survive. That’s why, in the midst of a record-breaking hot and dry summer, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan, and Save the Bull Trout are challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s inadequate Bull Trout Recovery Plan in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The illegal Bull Trout Recovery Plan would allow the federal government to remove bull trout from Endangered Species Act protections as long as only 147 individual populations go extinct out of 611 total populations.  Yes, that’s right.  Even though bull trout had already lost 60% of their range when listed under the Endangered Species Act 20 years ago, the plan is to allow another 147 populations to go extinct.  As the National Park Service noted in public comments against the plan, “Bull trout are a species that has already lost 60% of its historic range. Delisting after losing up to another 10% of that range is not a recovery plan.”  Instead, it is an extinction plan.

The Endangered Species Act requires that recovery plans contain “objective and measurable criteria,” which, when met, would lead to a lawful delisting rule.  This plan violates this legal requirement because there are no objective criteria, such as target population numbers, trends, or distribution.   Instead, the plan is to delist once “threats” are “effectively managed.”  However, it is simply impossible to determine if management has been effective without looking at the actual population numbers, trends, and distribution.  As stated by the Fish and Wildlife Service project leader from the Columbia River Fisheries Program Office: “Without a benchmark of success, there is . . . certainly no way to determine whether primary threats have been effectively’ managed.”

Accordingly, the “effective management” criterion was widely criticized by federal and state biologists as “nebulous,” ‘“extremely subjective,” “arbitrary,” and lacking any scientific basis. The State Supervisor of the Oregon FWS office summarized the primary concerns: “the lack of explicit demographic criteria in the plan, the subjective nature of the threats assessment tool, and the 75% recovery threshold.”  Similar concerns were expressed by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Service, the Northern Idaho Fish and Wildlife Service, the Burns Paiute Tribe, Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, National Park Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  The overwhelming concerns by federal, state, and Tribal scientists show how out-of-touch this plan is with basic scientific principles.

In 1988, the Endangered Species Act was amended by Congress to make the requirements for a recovery plan less discretionary.  Senator Mitchell clarified in the 1988 Congressional Record:  “It is essential to the act’s integrity that recovery goals for the number of individuals or populations needed to ensure a species’ existence be based solely on the best available scientific data.”  Because the plan has no scientific basis whatsoever, it violates this express Congressional intent as well as the express language of the law.

Because bull trout need the coldest, cleanest water of all salmonids to survive, they are an excellent indicator of water quality. Since people also need very clean water and a climate that doesn’t bake us, what is good for bull trout is good for humans. If we can’t save bull trout, can we save ourselves?

Please help us as we fight for bull trout and our own future.

Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.