Groups file a second lawsuit over bull trout habitat

2006-01-07T00:00:00Z Groups file a second lawsuit over bull trout habitatBy PERRY BACKUS of the Missoulian missoulian.com
January 07, 2006 12:00 am  • 

The two Montana-based environmental groups that forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for bull trout now say the agency didn't go far enough.

Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Wild Swan filed suit in U.S. District Court on Thursday, saying the agency went overboard when it reduced the amount of streams and lakes included in its final designation. The groups want the agency to go through another rule-making process and come up with another plan that designates more streams and lakes as critical habitat for bull trout.

The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains that bull trout are already protected after being listed in 1998.

"In 30 years of implementing the ESA (Endangered Species Act), the service has found that the designation of critical habitat provides little additional protection for most listed species, while preventing the service from using scarce conservation resources for activities with greater conservation benefits," said a written U.S. Fish and Wildlife statement released earlier. "In almost all cases, recovery of listed species will come through voluntary cooperative partnerships, not regulatory measures such as critical habitat."

Fish and Wildlife officials said they couldn't comment on the pending lawsuit.

The final critical habitat designations encompass 3,828 miles of streams and 143,218 acres of lakes.

The groups say that amounts to an 82 percent reduction from what was proposed by the agency's professional field biologists in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Nevada.

Bull trout are wide-ranging fish that spawn in mountain streams, then migrate to rivers, lakes or the ocean to mature and grow. At around age 5, they return to the stream where they were born to spawn. Unlike salmon, bull trout survive spawning and make this journey several times during their life.

"They ignored well-documented science in this final designation," said Arlene Montgomery, program director of Friends of the Wild Swan. "The best chance that bull trout have for survival and recovery is to ensure that these fish can migrate; this rule does not provide that connectivity."

The Fish and Wildlife Service also relied on a biased economic analysis that considered only the costs of critical habitat designation and totally ignored the benefits of cleaner drinking water, healthier populations and increased recreational opportunities, said the groups' complaint. The agency cut a 56-page section analyzing these benefits from its report in order to stack the deck against bull trout conservation, they said.

"Recovery and eventual delisting cannot occur without a good critical habitat designation," said Michael Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director. "We think it would be great to stand on the banks and catch 20-pound fish in a clean river - apparently this administration does not believe so.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has ignored their own scientists, gutted the economic analysis and thumbed their nose at federal court rulings. Further delay could cause extinction of bull trout."

"Bull trout are excellent indicators of water quality because they need cold, clean water and streambeds with little fine sediment," said Garrity. "Protecting and restoring bull trout habitat also protects water quality, providing benefits for fish and people."

The present rule excluded areas under approved conservation agreements and habitat management plans. It also excluded portions of the federal Columbia River Power System in recognition of the $3.3 billion already spent on river restoration projects over the last 20 years.

The rule also excluded reservoirs whose primary purpose is for energy production, flood control or water supply for human consumption, saying disruption of those functions could compromise health and safety or result in large economic losses.

Closer to Missoula, the portion of the Clark Fork River between Missoula and Butte was excluded because of its designation as a Superfund cleanup site.

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