Group sues in attempt to block Absaroka-Beartooth trout poisoning, restoration project

Wilderness Watch says project violates the Wilderness Act

By: - November 8, 2023 4:44 pm
The Buffalo Creek area where the trout project would take place.

The Buffalo Creek area where the trout project would take place. (Image via USFS document)

A Missoula-based environmental group has filed a federal lawsuit in its latest effort to block a planned project to poison a 45-mile stretch of waterways in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness over several years to kill off rainbow trout and replace them with Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Wilderness Watch sued the USFS Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Montana alleging the plan approved in August, which would include helicopter trips into the wilderness to transport supplies and crew members and aerial spraying of the poison over 20 acres of wetlands in addition to Buffalo Creek, violate several provisions of the Wilderness Act.

The organization had previously formally objected to the project’s approval after submitting public comments against the project when its initial draft environmental assessment was released in March 2022.

“The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is no place for the massive use of poisons or helicopters, nor is it a place for managers to play God with species and habitat manipulation,” Wilderness Watch Executive Director George Nickas said in a statement.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is comprised of nearly 940,000 acres of mostly Custer Gallatin National Forest land in southern Montana on the north side of Yellowstone National Park—designated under the Wilderness Act in 1978.

Probability of remaining suitable habitat for Yellowstone cutthroat trout by 2040 (Isaak et al. 2017).
Probability of remaining suitable habitat for Yellowstone cutthroat trout by 2040
(Isaak et al. 2017). (Via USFS environmental assessment)

The area affected by the planned fish project, which would likely get underway next year and be implemented over the course of up to 10 years, includes more than 45 miles of streams in the upper Buffalo Creek drainage, which runs into Slough Creek and then into the Lamar River in Yellowstone.

The plan approved by the USFS, developed in partnership with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and Yellowstone National Park, would allow crews to build three remote field camps, use helicopters to deliver thousands of pounds of gear and the fish poison rotenone into the wilderness, build and use a radio repeater in the wilderness, use the rotenone for up to five years in both the creek drainage and on wetlands and a lake, and put in fish barriers at Hidden Lake for the initial stages.

The Forest Service approved up to 60 days of motorized use in five years and up to 81 aircraft landings over 10 years as part of the plan, saying while they acknowledged motorized equipment “results in a degradation of wilderness character,” the remoteness of the area requires motorized use in order to complete the project.

The goal of the project, as stated by the USFS and its environmental assessment, is to remove populations of non-native rainbow trout from the system that were introduced into Hidden Lake by the state of Montana in 1932 and to replace them with Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

The cutthroat trout are also not native to that particular upper drainage, according to Wilderness Watch, which says that part of the drainage was historically barren of fish because of a 12-foot cascade close to the boundary of the forest and national park.

The barrier cascade on Buffalo Creek near the boundary of Yellowstone National Park.
The barrier cascade on Buffalo Creek near the boundary of Yellowstone National Park. (Image via USFS environmental assessment)

But they are native to the Yellowstone River watershed and lower Buffalo Creek watershed, according to the USFS, which has stated in its documents for the project that the population of Yellowstone cutthroat is declining and now occupies 44% of its native range. That is because other non-native fish are eating them, rainbow trout are crossbreeding with them and creating hybrid “cutbows,” and climate change is warming the waters beyond suitable temperatures for the fish, officials said.

The final environmental assessment lists two primary reasons for moving forward with the project: protecting the genetic integrity of Yellowstone cutthroat trout to “secure part of Yellowstone National Park’s natural legacy,” and establishing a pure lineage of the trout in an area less prone to climate change than some stretches of the Lamar River drainage that are predicted to become unsuitable for the fish.

“Climate change is constricting the amount of habitat suitable for Yellowstone cutthroat trout within their historic range,” the environmental assessment says. “The project area is at high elevation and predicted to remain thermally suitable for Yellowstone cutthroat trout for the foreseeable future.”

Upon final approval of the project in August, Mike Thom, the Gardiner District Ranger for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said the project was “crucial” for the longterm viability of the native cutthroat.

Wilderness Watch says its lawsuit is not aimed at going after efforts to conserve the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, which it called “important work.” Rather, the lawsuit challenges what the organization sees as violations of the Wilderness Act due to human impacts on the wilderness from motorized equipment, helicopters and the rotenone, which kills animals with gills and can affect some aquatic invertebrates, according to the environmental assessment.

The Wilderness Act’s purpose is to ensure America’s growing population does not leave the country without lands designated for preservation and protection, and it states that there should be no use of motor vehicles or aircraft landings in wilderness area except for when they are “necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration area for the purpose of” the act.

The lawsuit contends that the project does not meet that exception and violates the Forest Service Manual in areas where it states objectives to keep wilderness from being affected by human manipulation and to allow natural selection and nature to determine which species persist into the future in an area.

Wilderness Watch says that because of the natural cascade, the area that Montana stocked with rainbow trout in the 1930s — which have persisted in the system since then — had no fish in them prior to the introduction.

A map of the Buffalo Creek Watershed in comparison to the northern stretches of Yellowstone National Park and the Lamar and Yellowstone rivers.
A map of the Buffalo Creek Watershed in comparison to the northern stretches of Yellowstone National Park and the Lamar and Yellowstone rivers. (Image via USFS document)

The lawsuit says the Yellowstone cutthroat should also be considered an exotic fish to the upper watershed, and argues that undertaking a possibly decade-long project that will affect the wilderness’ habitat is unnecessary and oversteps the Wilderness Act’s protections.

“Despite the fact that the Forest Service documented an overall detriment to wilderness character from the Project activity, the Forest Service justified the Project as a benefit to ‘naturalness’ given its ultimate aim to replace the stocked rainbow trout population with a stocked Yellowstone cutthroat trout population,” the lawsuit says. “The Forest Service used this justification to frame its decade-long and heavily motorized poisoning and stocking activity as the ‘minimum necessary’ administrative work it could do to comply with the mandate of the Wilderness Act.”

The group also argues that the federal government has the full authority over public lands and the wildlife living there, but that the USFS rejected non-stocking approaches “on the premise that it remained entirely up to the State of Montana whether stocking activity would recur in the Wilderness” – which Wilderness Watch says was “an additional illustration of the arbitrary and unlawful bases for the Forest Service’s project approval.”

The lawsuit asks a judge to declare the approval of the project to be in violation of the Wilderness Act, to vacate the August decision, and to block the Forest Service from beginning work on the project.

A spokesperson for the Custer Gallatin National Forest did not return messages seeking comment on the lawsuit Wednesday. Nickas said the lawsuit’s goal is to uphold the integrity of the Wilderness Act.

“The Wilderness Act was passed precisely to rein in the propensity of managers to want to control nature,” he said. “Our lawsuit seeks to preserve the wild character of the Wilderness and let nature continue to evolve of its own free will.”


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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.