Bull trout recovery proposal hits road
The critical habitat proposals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cover an enormous area in the Columbia River Basin across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana – more than 18,600 miles of rivers, streams and creeks and more than 532,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs.
The proposal includes nearly three-fourths of the main-stem Columbia and more than 40 percent of the Snake River.
In the Klamath Basin, the proposal would affect 296 miles of Oregon streams and 33,939 acres of lakes.
Among the threats faced by bull trout, USFW lists dams, agricultural practices including withdrawals of irrigation water, improper forestry practices, poor livestock grazing management, development, the effects of mining operations, competition with non-native fish and incidental mortality by anglers.
The USFW is holding a series of informational meetings and public hearings to distribute information about the proposals and to gather comments on them. One of the first meetings was in Wenatchee on Jan. 7.
Final decisions are expected in October, after the completion of an economic study.
Proposed critical habitat designations are expected to be released in September for bull trout in the Jarbridge River in Nevada, St. Mary’s/Belly River in Montana and the Puget Sound/Coastal region of Washington state.
The majority of the land adjacent to the proposed critical habitat in the Columbia and Klamath basins is under federal ownership, but about 36 percent is in private ownership, much of it in timberlands or grazing lands. Small percentages of the adjacent land are under state or tribal ownership.
The USFW has released two documents related to bull trout: a proposed critical habitat designation and a draft recovery plan. The critical habitat designation carries regulatory requirements on federal lands, or when a federal agency carries out, funds or authorizes actions – the so-called federal nexus – that might affect bull trout. The recovery plan is advisory, without regulatory authority, and includes the USFW’s estimate of what needs to be done to recover bull trout in the region.
The proposed critical habitat designations are the result of team efforts that included federal, state, tribal and private biologists as well as hydrologists and foresters, resources users, landowners and others, said Susan Martin, a supervisor in the Upper Columbia office of USFW in Spokane. The recovery plan’s goal is to reach a level where bull trout can be de-listed, she said.
Bull trout are native to the Northwest United States and Canada, said Bob Hallock, a USFW fish biologist from Spokane. The fish are now considered extinct in California. At one time there was a bounty on the fish, and anglers were urged to toss them on stream banks.
Bull trout spawn in the fall and require cold, clean water, clean gravel and cobble substrate and gentle stream slopes, Hallock said. Bull trout eggs require a long incubation period, as long as six months in some areas. Some bull trout migrate from streams to lakes or reservoirs, and some are resident stream fish.
Populations of bull trout have declined because the fish is more sensitive to increases in water temperatures, poor water quality and low flow conditions in some areas, Hallock said.
Hallock said bull trout have been raised in hatcheries, but there is not a significant number in hatcheries at the present time. If hatchery-raised bull trout are reintroduced, they would be counted toward recovery goals, he said.
USFW estimates bull trout recovery in the Columbia and Klamath river basins will cost $500 million over 25 years.
USFW has divided the region into 23 recovery units. For example, in the Mid-Columbia recovery unit, proposed critical habitat designation includes 529 miles of rivers, streams and creeks and 14,987 acres of lakes and reservoirs, including the five mountain reservoirs that feed the region’s irrigation systems.
In the Mid-Columbia, about 44 percent of the critical habitat is bordered by federal land, 40 percent by privately owned land, 9 percent by state land and 7 percent by land owned by the Yakama Nation.
Recovery in the Mid-Columbia is estimated to cost about $35 million. That figure doesn’t include capital improvements such as fish passage to lakes or reservoirs, which could escalate costs significantly, said Jeff Thomas, a USFW fish biologist from Yakima.
Recovery goals will be met in the Mid-Columbia unit when the annual redd count indicates the migratory adult bull trout population has reached 2,550 to 3,050, compared with 1,200 estimated in the unit now, Thomas said.
Other goals will be met when the fish are distributed among the 16 populations within the unit, when the numbers are stable or increasing for at least two generations and when impediments to migration have been addressed.
Ag groups concerns
“It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen because of the proposals,” said Tip Hudson, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association in Ellensburg. “Some of the pieces of the plan are likely to affect grazing and riparian access.”
It appears USFW wants to exclude grazing from some critical habitat areas, Hudson said. But it’s unclear if that means moving cattle or fencing streams. The cattlemen’s association’s position is that the proposals are not scientifically sound as blanket policy, Hudson said.
USFW is careful to mention the federal nexus trigger for consultations, but many people don’t realize how much land comes under the federal nexus, Hudson said. Anytime a farmer or rancher has CRP land, USFS or BLM grazing permits, uses EQIP funding, or uses irrigation water from a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation project, there’s a federal nexus, he said.
Hudson said the cattlemen’s association will be providing general comments on the proposals to USFW, and he urged cattlemen to become involved in the hearing process.
“Ranchers need to be aware how the plan might affect their individual operation,” Hudson said.
The Washington Farm Bureau is calling for an extension to the public comment period to allow more time to respond to the bull trout proposals.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent four years developing its critical habitat designation, which covers 651 pages in the Federal Register, and its bull trout recovery plan, which covers 650 pages,” said Dean Boyer, farm bureau spokesman in Olympia. “The critical habitat designation would affect more than 18,000 miles of streams and rivers and more than 500,000 acres of lakes in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. This includes nearly three-quarters of the Columbia River. The bull trout recovery plan would encompass an even greater area. It is unreasonable and unfair to expect private citizens and organizations such as the Washington Farm Bureau to respond to such an overwhelming amount of data, with such broad-reaching implications, in 60 to 90 days.”
Boyer said it appears USFW is trying “to bury” individuals in data and impossible timetables rather than welcoming public involvement in what is supposed to be an open process, as required by law.
The farm bureau also called for data used in the proposals to be verified or undergo peer review.
“This is a self-perpetuating problem,” Boyer said. “Federal agencies rely upon untested state data; then once these alleged ‘facts’ or ‘findings’ are published in the federal rule, they are used by the state to justify local regulatory efforts, or by environmental organizations to demand stricter rules. USFW needs to independently determine the validity of the data before relying on it for such a far-reaching critical habitat designation and recovery plan.
“Unfortunately, once critical habitat designations or recovery plans are adopted, it is virtually impossible to rectify errors, even when good science proves original assumptions to have been wrong.”
An economic analysis should have been part of the proposal, not a separate report, Boyer said.
“USFW apparently has spent four years developing a critical habitat designation and a recovery plan without considering the economic impact,” he said. “This is not acceptable, and the public should not let the agency get away with (it) without an understanding of what it will cost taxpayers and individual property owners.”
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