Pend Oreille County, WA: Bull trout recovery may cost $500 million - Draft plan suggests fish ladders at some dams

Dan Hansen
Staff writer, The Spokesman-Review

Pend Oreille County, WA - Restoring bull trout in Washington's Pend Oreille County will cost tens of millions of dollars and may require fish ladders on up to three three major dams, according to a federal plan.

The draft plan, released Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, designates 10 percent of all Columbia Basin rivers and creeks as "critical" for the trout.

In all, the plan covers 18,000 miles of streams and 538,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana. Those waters include portions of the Pend Oreille, Kootenai and Snake rivers, North Idaho's three big lakes and hundreds of creeks.

The plan calls for an estimated $30 million worth of work in Pend Oreille County alone, not counting the cost of fish ladders. Overall, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates it will take 25 years and $500 million to restore bull trout to sustainable populations.

The "critical habitat" designations mean any river-disturbing work done with federal money -- or requiring a federal permit -- will have to meet more stringent environmental requirements.

"Critical habitat designation could force federal land managers, at least, to seriously take into account the potential impact on bull trout of logging, mining and grazing operations on our public lands," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United.

However, most activities on private or state land will not be affected.

A Western member of the char family that can grow to more than 20 pounds, bull trout require clear, cold water.

In 1998, after seven environmental lawsuits, the Wildlife Service listed bull trout as "threatened." The agency had long acknowledged the species was in trouble, due to dams, logging, mining, over-fishing and other factors.

Another suit forced the government to write a restoration plan and declare critical habitat; that's the document released Thursday in its draft form.

"It's only a proposal," said Steve Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The service will be taking a close look at this proposal," including studies to determine its economic impact.

Bull trout are far more scarce in Washington than in Idaho and Montana, numbering just 1,600 to 2,600 adult fish in the Pend Oreille River and its tributary creeks. That's where the fish is making its last stand in northeastern Washington, and where biologists have decided to concentrate their efforts.

"They're in dire shape ... but there is some evidence of reproduction," said Bob Hallock, Wildlife Service biologist in Spokane.

The draft plan calls for "fish passage" at Boundary, Box Canyon and Albeni Falls dams. Typically, that means fish ladders costing millions of dollars.

However, Hallock said the wildlife service is unlikely to require a ladder at Boundary Dam, which is at the outer edge of the area designated as critical habitat. And no one has yet decided for certain that ladders will be needed at the two other dams. Studies are pending at both.

"What we don't want is to spend $15 million and end up passing only one fish or a handful of fish" through Box Canyon Dam, said Mark Cauchy, regulatory affairs director for the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District.

Bull trout typically migrate from big lakes and rivers into small creeks to spawn. In the Pend Oreille River Basin, the best remaining spawning water is LeClerc Creek, where the plan calls for numerous improvements.

Already, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife plans the experimental poisoning of non-native brook trout in one portion of LeClerc Creek, said John Whalen, the state's regional fisheries program manager.

Although brookies may also be targeted in other creeks, "we're not going to wipe out brook trout," Whalen said. The abundant species competes with bull trout for food and spawning beds, and can interbreed with bull trout, weakening its genetics.


Nine meetings planned
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans meetings in nine Northwest cities about its bull trout restoration plan.

A meeting at the Washington WestCoast Grand Hotel, 303 W. North River Drive in Spokane, is planned for Jan. 9. It includes an open house from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., followed by a public hearing from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

A Lewiston meeting also is planned for Jan. 9, after the same schedule. It will be at the Red Lion Hotel, 621 21st St.

Comments may also be sent in writing to John Young, bull trout coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 911 NE 11th Ave., Portland, OR 97232.

More information about the bull trout proposal -- and an opportunity to comment via e-mail -- is available on the Internet at


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