Feds propose bull trout critical habitat

By Katherine Calhoon
Methow Valley News


Methow Valley, WA - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a proposal last Thursday (Nov. 14) for areas to be designated as critical habitat for bull trout in the Columbia River Basin, including the Methow River.

The critical habitat proposal came along with a draft recovery plan.FOR THE METHOW? The two are closely connected, with critical habitat designed to accommodate the conservation of a species; and a recovery plan being a larger outline to provide direction for eventually achieving delisting of the species.

Bull trout were listed in 1998 and 1999 as threatened, and when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to designate critical habitat determinations because of budget constraints, the service was sued by two conservation groups. A court settlement reached in January 2002 established a schedule for the proposal of critical habitat for bull trout.

The proposal calls for 2,507 miles of streams and 30,896 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Washington state to be designated as critical bull trout habitat, about 10 percent of the stream miles in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

"This is an important step in identifying areas important for recovery," said USFWS spokesman Tom Buckley, "but it has very little impact for private landowners who aren’t receiving federal grant money for land improvements or any other federal agreements having to do with the land."

The designations apply only to the waterways and do not include adjacent lands.

"Having the designation apply to adjacent lands was a question we wrestled with," said Buckley. "Our idea was to have protection of the species with the least impact on humans. We wanted to have the public as a partner in doing this, so we made an effort to reduce the impact on humans and their activities."

Designation of an area does not close an area to human access or use, such as fishing or boating. However, activities funded or authorized by federal agencies must to be shown unlikely to destroy or adversely modify a protected species’ critical habitat.

The critical habitat proposal will be made final in October 2003, after an in-depth economic analysis has been done and public comment has been taken into consideration.

Public information meetings and public hearings are planned in January, including one in Wenatchee Jan. 7 and one in Spokane Jan. 9. Informal information meetings will be from 1-3 p.m., and formal public hearings will be from 6-8 p.m. The meeting in Wenatchee will take place at the West Coast Wenatchee Center Hotel at 201 North Wenatchee Ave. The meeting in Spokane will be held at the West Coast Grand Hotel at 303 West North River Drive.

Bull trout are members of the char subgroup of the salmon family. They are good indicators of water quality and stream health because they require very cold, clean water to thrive, according to the USFWS.

"Some areas that are not currently occupied are still prime habitat for bull trout, or they may have been there historically and we are looking for repopulation of the area," said Buckley. "This is a big project with areas that need further study, and that is also why we are asking for help from the public and other agencies regarding information on bull trout populations."

Proposed critical habitat areas for bull trout in the upper Columbia River Basin include the entire Methow River and the following areas:

Rattlesnake Creek, Robinson Creek, Trout Creek, Crater Creek, Gold Creek, North Fork Gold Creek, Beaver Creek, Blue Buck Creek, Buttermilk Creek, East Fork Buttermilk Creek, Little Bridge Creek, North Creek, Reynolds Creek, Twisp River, West Fork Buttermilk Creek, Black Lake, Chewuch River, Lake Creek, Wolf Creek, Goat Creek, Cedar Creek, Early Winters Creek, Huckleberry Creek, Cougar Lake, First Hidden Lake, Monument Creek and West Fork Methow River.

"The entire Methow River was included because a fluvial population exists in the Methow," said Heather Bartlett with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. A fluvial population is one that spawns in tributary headwaters, but their lifestyle includes time spent in the river.

"There are resident bull trout that spend their entire life in one area, fluvial bull trout and add-fluvial bull trout where a lake is incorporated as part of their life history," Bartlett said. "The Methow Basin has all three."

There is still a summer bull trout fishing season on the Lost River from Monument Creek to the outlet of Cougar Lake.

Only about 1.5 percent of the entire Methow Basin is capable of bull trout reproduction, due to their need for cold temperatures, according to Bartlett.

"Once they leave the early-rearing areas, they are able to compete against other fish species—in fact, the bull trout dominate," Bartlett said. "They are an apex predator—they live a long time and can become very big. Bull trout are piscivorous, meaning they primarily eat other fish, and have evolutionarily chosen to remain in fresh water because they don’t need to go to the ocean for the nutrients offered there."


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