Yakima River Basin: Saving a Trout Can Change Our Land - Plan would lead to changes in irrigation, local land use, grazing and timber harvesting

By DAVID LESTER
YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC


Federal fishery officials have launched what could be a 25-year effort to recover populations of threatened bull trout, likely leading to changes in irrigation, local land use, grazing and timber harvesting in the Yakima River Basin.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday released its draft plan to restore the fish, described as a road map to recovery.

The goal is to maintain stable and increasing populations of bull trout.

Implementing the plan has a high price, at least $35 million locally and as much as $500 million across the four Northwest states.

In both cases, the costs would be borne by federal, state, tribal, and county governments, and private individuals.

The draft recovery plan is general in nature. Just what specific changes will result won't be known until it is adopted, probably late next year, according to officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Public hearings on the draft plan are scheduled to begin in January.

In addition to the Yakima basin, the service issued draft plans for 23 other basins across the region that are home to separate bull trout populations in the Columbia River Basin, the Klamath River Basin in southern Oregon, and the St. Mary-Belly River Basin in Montana.

Recommendations in the Yakima plan include adding fish ladders at major basin dams, changes in river flows and reservoir operations, livestock grazing, repairing culverts, and reducing runoff from roads and mining.

Hatchery production of bull trout also is included in the plan as a possible route to help recover the fish.

The plan describes the existing storage dams as primary impediments to the recovery of bull trout and must be addressed.

The draft plans are the result of three years of review involving federal, state and tribal fishery agencies.

County government, state fisheries officials and irrigators deferred comment Thursday on specifics, saying they had not had a chance to review the draft plan.

Jeff Tayer, regional director for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the plan does allow local citizens to help find solutions.

The estimate to implement the Yakima basin plan does not include the cost of adding fish ladders that would provide bull trout access to the five basin reservoirs and the small streams that feed those lakes.

No fish ladders exist at any of these five reservoirs Rimrock, Bumping, Keechelus, Kachess, and Cle Elum. There is no estimate of what those costs might be.

Federal officials are reviewing adding ladders at the lakes in the aftermath of a decision by the Bureau of Reclamation to repair Keechelus Dam without adding ladders.

Federal officials emphasized the recommendations are voluntary and will draw on planning activities already occurring within the basin.

One recovery proposal, the screening of irrigation diversions, has been ongoing since the early 1980s. Likewise, local groups already are working on plans to improve fish habitat. The Bonneville Power Administration has financed a number of projects, including the fish screens at irrigation dams, for two decades, to protect and enhance migratory fish.

Should the recommendations be adopted and implemented, bull trout could be removed from the endangered species list at the end of the 25-year period, officials said.

"This is really a road map or a blueprint of what actions we think are necessary to move bull trout to recovery," said Susan Martin, supervisor of the service's Upper Columbia office in Spokane, the office responsible for the Yakima River Basin.

The basin stretches from the Cascade Mountains to the Rattlesnake Hills and from upper Kittitas County to the Horse Heaven hills. The basin encompasses 6,155 square miles and is the nation's top producer of apples and hops, as well as other fruits and vegetables, beef, and a growing wine industry.

Bull trout is one of two Yakima River Basin species listed as threatened. The other is steelhead trout. A recovery plan for steelhead, a species managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, has not been prepared.

Along with the recovery plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service also released its proposal for what constitutes habitat that is critical to survival of bull trout.

The agency's proposal for necessary habitat includes a total of 18,468 miles of streams and 537,722 acres of lakes and reservoirs in the four Northwest states, or about 10 percent of the total. The amount of proposed critical habitat in the Yakima River Basin was not available on Thursday.

Designating habitat is part of a settlement reached earlier this year in a lawsuit filed against the service by two Montana environmental groups.

Wendi Weber, chief of endangered species issues for the service in Portland, said the agency must do an economic analysis before adopting the habitat and recovery plans.

"We can exclude areas where the costs outweigh the benefits unless it means extinction," she said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service already is discussing with federal Bureau of Reclamation officials what changes would be needed in operation of the 460,000-acre federal irrigation project to protect fish.

The discussions ultimately will lead to actions to reduce how the irrigation project affects bull trout as well as steelhead.

Dave Kaumheimer, environmental program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation in Yakima, said the plan represents a role his agency might play in recovery of bull trout.

"I don't know what they are specifically asking us to do. That will be part of recovery planning and implementation. Some of those things will go forward and some will not."


Bull Trout is a member of the char family, a subgroup of salmon, and includes Dolly Varden and lake trout.

Habitat: Bull trout live in lakes, river and some small streams. The fish can grow as large as 20 pounds in lakes. Bull trout prefer cold, clear water in lakes and upper tributary streams.

Estimated population in the Yakima River Basin is between 2,550 and 3,050 adults. The historic population is not known.

Local bull trout populations include those in the Ahtanum drainage, upper Yakima River mainstem, as well as the upper Teanaway, Cle Elum, and Tieton rivers and a variety of creeks in the upper basin, about 45 percent of its historic range.

Endangered status: Listed as threatened in its historic Northwest range in June 1998. The fish is considered to be in trouble because of increased water temperatures, poor water quality, low flows, construction of dams that blocked migration.

Historic range: Throughout the Columbia River Basin as well as western Montana, northern Nevada, the Klamath basin in southern Oregon, northern California, Alberta, and British Columbia, Canada.

Largest population sites: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana. The fish is extinct in northern California and the Okanogan River Basin in Washington state.


A public comment period will open after the draft recovery plan is published in the Federal Register in about two weeks. Comments can be submitted to John Young, bull trout coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 911 N.E. 11th Ave., Portland, Ore. 97232.

Hearings: There are nine public hearings proposed. The closest hearing to the Yakima River Basin will be Jan. 7 in Wenatchee at the WestCoast Wenatchee Center Hotel, 201 N. Wenatchee Ave.

Informational meetings precede each hearing at 1 p.m. Formal hearings begin at 6 p.m.

Adoption: A formal adoption of habitat considered critical for bull trout should be completed in October 2003. A final recovery plan will follow a few months later.

On the Internet: http://species.fws.gov/

 

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