Plans to recover bull trout listed - 5 dams called 'primary impediments to recovery'


By Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald staff writer

The Yakima irrigation project was thrust back into the spotlight Thursday when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans for helping Columbia Basin bull trout.

Five major water storage dams in the Cascade Mountains that prevent the federally protected fish from migrating through the river system were labeled "primary impediments to recovery," although no specific changes to the dams were announced.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers isolation by dams to be a major threat to bull trout in (the Yakima Basin) and agricultural practices and associated water withdrawal as a threat," according to documents released Thursday.

Other barriers to bull trout populations are scattered across the Northwest, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which protected the bull trout under the Endangered Species Act in 1998 and 1999.

Fish and Wildlife's announcement followed the settlement of a lawsuit in which two environmental groups sued the agency for not designating which bull trout habitat is deemed essential to the species' recovery.

Bull trout, which can grow to more than 20 pounds and live up to 12 years, have declined across the West because of habitat degradation and fragmentation, poor water quality and the introduction of non-native fish.

Recovery plans are expected to cost $500 million over the next 25 years.

"We expect recovery of bull trout to be a complex, dynamic process, occurring over a long time," said Anne Badgley, director of the agency's Pacific region. "Ultimately, bull trout recovery will depend on cooperative partnerships and interagency collaboration."

The agency's proposed critical habitat covers more than 2,500 miles of streams in Washington, much of which already is protected under similar rules for endangered salmon.

Stream banks and adjacent lands -- more than half of which in Washington are privately owned -- are not included in the designation. They would come under review only if activities there needed a federal permit or money.

Fire suppression is not expected to be affected, nor are recreational activities such as swimming, boating and fishing.

Fish and Wildlife officials promised a full review of the economic impacts of their proposals, emphasizing they may exclude areas if costs outweigh benefits.

The most prominent aspect of a critical habitat designation is that it prohibits destruction of habitat from actions done or paid for by a federal agency.

That is why the Yakima irrigation project operated by the Bureau of Reclamation will be "addressed" -- something the federal documents don't yet define.

"It's hard to say whether there will be additional operational impacts from those plans," said Dave Kaumheimer, Bureau official in Yakima.

Already, the bureau and other federal agencies are studying how to improve fish passage past the dams that store water for approximately 500,000 acres of irrigated land from Cle Elum to Kennewick.

There are thought to be approximately 3,000 adult bull trout in the Yakima Basin, and the Yakama Nation is pressing hard to improve their ability to migrate between the reservoirs and streams.

The cost of Yakima Basin bull trout recovery was pegged at
$35 million, in addition to unspecified costs associated with possible construction of fish ladders at major reservoirs.

Kaumheimer expects the initial assessment of possible fish passage facilities to be done in January. "Hopefully," he said, "that will help in the development of this recovery planning process."

Bull trout in the Umatilla and Walla Walla basins also will come under additional scrutiny given the historically low and hot water flows that harm bull trout populations.

Work there already is well under way to address concerns, with Walla Walla irrigators giving up substantial amounts of water to keep the river flowing.

"We are still very, very hopeful that we can keep the feds from shutting (irrigation) down," said Bob Rupar, a businessman and leader in the Walla Walla River recovery effort.

"We keep getting encouragement from high up in the federal and state levels that we are ... the model community on fish restoration," he said. That gives us courage."


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