Bull-trout plan could reshape Oregon watersheds

By Rachel Odell
The (Bend, Ore.) Bulletin
Seattle Times

BEND, Ore.1/2/03 In clear water so cold that a human submerged for a short time would become hypothermic, young bull trout thrive. Where trees lean over the river bank and gravel stream beds, adult bull trout spawn, fertilizing eggs that will hatch and send fry into the world.

The undisturbed habitat and the unpolluted, cold water ideal spawning temperatures range from 39 degrees to the low 40s required to support this species of fish are rarely found anymore. Consequently, bull-trout numbers throughout the West have dwindled. The Deschutes Basin is no exception.

Once reviled as unwelcome predators, bull trout recently have climbed into favor with biologists and ecologists.

Today, officials believe that if a bull-trout population is present, the habitat must be good. Valued now as an "indicator" species, bull trout have become an important species to save. Protecting this fish could indirectly protect many other species of animals, fish and vegetation, said Phil Carroll, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That agency manages threatened and endangered species, and bull trout were listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in 1998, triggering a mandatory analysis of critical habitat and recovery.

Four years later with a new administration in the White House fish and wildlife officials have released two draft plans geared toward restoring the bull trout throughout the Northwest: the bull-trout recovery plan and a proposal to designate all of the habitat that once supported bull trout as "critical."

The agency is now seeking public comment on the plans. The bull-trout recovery plan would set goals to determine when the fish population has reached a healthy level, Carroll said. The critical-habitat proposal, if adopted, would protect habitat for the fish both where they are currently and where they were historically. It also could bring sweeping changes to water allocation and irrigation.

Environmentalists cheered the plans, saying they are progress toward repairing damage done to the bull trout and their habitat.

Restoring habitat will reconnect many lakes and streams severed by the construction of dams and irrigation diversions over the last century, said Kaz Thea, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

"Currently, a lot of headwater streams are disconnected," she said. "We have lost big populations of bull trout because of that. Bull trout are the leading indicator of water quality and watershed health. If we can restore the bull trout, we can make watersheds whole."

But irrigators, ranchers and others who draw water from the streams and rivers where bull trout live have trouble with parts of the proposals. Specifically, increasing protection of bull-trout habitat both present and historic sets the stage for lawsuits from environmentalists, said Todd Griffith, manager of Swalley Irrigation District.

Groups that oppose irrigation will use the courts to disrupt irrigation procedures, he said. As a result, irrigators will spend more money on court costs than on making irrigation more efficient and conserving water, he said. Griffith said irrigation districts are currently working to improve habitat without a government mandate.

If the recovery plan and designation of critical habitat are adopted, conserving water and leaving it in the stream will be mandatory and could drastically affect current irrigation practices, he said. That would disrupt the voluntary water-conservation efforts, he said.

"We're not against trying to improve habitat for fish," he said. "It's just that bull trout aren't in the upper basin now. Why try to fix something when it is not a problem?"

Historically, bull trout used to storm the 251 miles from the Deschutes River's headwaters in the Cascades to the Columbia River. Aggressive, migratory and strong adult bull trout commonly tip the scales at 20 pounds they were the wolf packs of the river.

Today, only a fragment of the original Deschutes Basin bull-trout population remains. In the Metolius River basin, where pure, cold water is renowned for its quality, bull trout are on the rise, Portland General Electric fisheries biologist Don Ratliff said.

"The Metolius came back quickly (once biologists started monitoring the fish and protecting habitat) because the bull-trout streams are very cold," Ratliff said.

The bull trout born in the Metolius migrate into Lake Billy Chinook, which forms at the confluence of the Deschutes, Crooked and Metolius rivers. So healthy is that segment of the population that anglers can actually fish for and keep bull trout from Lake Billy Chinook that measure above 24 inches, despite its threatened status, said Steve Marx of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Typically, people may not harvest threatened or endangered species.

If bull trout are reintroduced to their historic range a move the draft recovery plan calls for officials could face changes in the operation of the Crane Prairie and Wickiup dams, Rieber said.

For instance, officials may have to leave more water in the reservoirs at certain times of the year or could be required to maintain the stream flow in the creeks between the two reservoirs at certain levels, Rieber said. Any talk of limiting the amount of water that comes into or leaves a reservoir makes irrigators nervous. The water in the reservoirs is necessary for farmers downstream who rely on reservoir releases for consistent water delivery.

The draft recovery plan offers suggestions for how to increase bull-trout numbers at best, and how to keep the populations from declining, at worst. It also sets a price tag of $2.1 million over 25 years to reach recovery in the Deschutes Basin alone.

Merely intended as guidance, the recovery plan does not mandate any specific actions. Instead it sets goals for specific areas that, when reached, will demonstrate the species has recovered.

The proposal to designate "critical habitat" has more regulatory teeth. If an area becomes "critical habitat," it needs to be protected or restored to a level that could support a threatened or endangered species.

Even if the species no longer lives in its historical habitat, officials can still designate it as critical, and no federal agency could undertake a project that would threaten the habitat's integrity.

State officials plan to release an economic-impact analysis for the critical-habitat designation in March.


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