The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deleted information from a recently released economic analysis of bull trout recovery that showed $215 million in benefits associated with a healthy bull trout fishery.

Instead, the analysis reported only the costs of protecting bull trout and its habitat in the Columbia and Klamath river basins - up to $300 million over the next decade.

Gone from the analysis, written by Bioeconomics Inc. of Missoula, were 55 pages extolling the potential benefits of bull trout recovery: a robust sport fishery, reduced drinking water costs, irrigation and in-stream flow benefits, improved quality of life and benefits to other fish species.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, an agency spokeswoman in Denver confirmed the information's removal, but could not explain the decision.

"The removal was a policy decision made at the Washington level," said Diane Katzenberger, an information officer in the Fish and Wildlife Service's Denver office. "It did not come out of Denver or Portland."

Katzenberger could not say who made the decision or how it was justified. And repeated telephone messages left for officials in the agency's Washington office went unanswered, as were messages left at Bioeconomics Inc.

The censored analysis was released by the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Wild Swan, the two environmental groups that forced the federal government to list bull trout as a threatened species, then to designate "critical habitat" throughout the Columbia and Klamath basins.

"This is so blatantly dishonest," said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Wild Rockies group. "They simply chose to hide the benefits of bull trout recovery from the public. They misled the American public."

In a letter to the region's bull trout coordinator, Garrity demanded that the missing chapter be restored to the economic analysis and that the public be given a chance to comment on the uncensored document.

By releasing a cost-benefit analysis minus the benefits chapter, the Fish and Wildlife Service "violated the law and insulted the intelligence of the American public," Garrity said in a letter to John Young, the agency's Portland-based bull trout coordinator.

"Economic impacts can be both positive and negative, and by eliminating the positive impacts you have inappropriately skewed the analysis," he wrote.

In Denver, Katzenberger defended the censure by citing "the difficulty of assigning a dollar value to a biological benefit."

"We know the costs of consultation and of road upgrades and culvert replacements," she said. "We don't know the dollar value of biological benefits. And no matter what, it would be a comparison of apples to oranges."

The deleted analysis was, however, detailed in its evaluation of the potential sport fishery created by restoration of healthy bull trout runs.

"The re-establishment of this fishery is expected to be the primary direct benefit" associated with the species' recovery, the analysis said.

Using per-day fishing values of $17 and $50, the economists suggested benefits of up to $215 million for a recovered bull trout fishery.

"Bull trout were a species that was, at one time, sought by anglers across the Pacific Northwest," the report said. "Now bull trout can only be legally harvested in a few waters."

In part, economists used data on angler interest in past bull trout fisheries to estimate the future potential. The best available data was from Montana and dates to the 1960s.

In Montana and Idaho, bull trout were commonly called "salmon trout" and were often the biggest and most easily caught fish in many waters, the analysis said.

In a story for Montana Outdoors magazine in 1959, writer Martin Onishuk dubbed bull trout as the "poor man's salmon."

Onishuk wrote: "Anyone familiar with the thrill of having a rod doubled by a wild and powerful fish needs no explanation of the worth of the Dolly Varden."

The economists added: "Angler preference studies generally indicate that catching large fish is a relatively high-ranked motive in choice of fishing location."

In a 1986 survey of 2,173 Montana anglers, 61 percent said "catching large trout" was "very important" or "important" and that "catching wild trout" was "important" or "very important."

Fish and Wildlife Service officials did not mention the deleted benefits chapter when they released the economic analysis last month.

In fact, when asked why the report did not include any discussion of benefits, they insisted the Endangered Species Act asks only for an analysis of the costs of designating critical habitat for an at-risk species.

Once approved, though, the economic analysis will be used by Interior Secretary Gale Norton to determine whether the costs of recovery exceed the benefits in some portions of the trout's habitat in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

And Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has already asked the agency to review the status of bull trout regionwide, hoping it will be taken off the list of federally protected species and turned over to state fisheries managers.

Concern for the fish's future led an anonymous employee of the Fish and Wildlife Service to leak a copy of the deleted chapter to environmentalists, who then gave it to reporters.

In addition to direct costs associated with a renewed bull trout fishery, the analysis touted a number of benefits that cannot be quantified - including "existence value."

"Recovery of the bull trout population may also lead to enhanced existence value, which reflects the utility the public derives from knowledge that a species continues to exist," the analysis said. "A number of published studies have demonstrated that the public holds values for endangered and threatened fish species separate and distinct from any expected direct use of the species."

For example, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of western Montana intend to spend $18 million on the recovery of a bull trout fishery in the Jocko River because of its cultural importance.

Projects that benefit bull trout habitat also benefit other trout species, in-stream flows and water quality in lakes and streams, the analysis said.

Bull trout need cold, clean water and a natural hydrograph to survive and thrive.

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

If you're interested

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take public comment through May 5 on its draft economic analysis of the potential cost of designating critical habitat for bull trout in the Columbia and Klamath river basins. The economic analysis is posted on the Web at pacific.fws.gov/bulltrout. A public information meeting is planned from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks office, 490 N. Meridian Road in Kalispell. Written comments should be mailed to: John Young, Bull Trout Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ecological Services, 911 N.E. 11th Ave., Portland, Ore. 97232, faxed to 503-231-6243, or e-mailed to R1BullTroutCH@r1.fws.gov. E-mails should include Attn: RIN 1018-A152, as well as the sender's name and return address.

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