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Bull trout

Bull trout, despite comebacks, are still in danger, experts warn.

Decades in the making, and debating, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its final bull trout recovery plan this week, outlining the conservation actions needed for the species to recover from its precipitous decline.

Bull trout, a cold-water fish species that is highly susceptible to warming waters and habitat destruction, were once abundant in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California and Nevada.

Their numbers plummeted in the last 50 years because of human-caused habitat loss, climate change and other factors, and they were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has completed three other recovery plans since then, but those were never finalized.

This final plan was developed after more than a year of collaboration with interested and knowledgeable federal, tribal, state and private parties.

At the heart of the new strategy are six geographically specific implementation plans which identify conservation actions needed to address threats such as loss of habitat connectivity and passage barriers, non-native fish competition and predation, and the effects of poor land-management practices.

“The final recovery plan is a conservation compass to guide the recovery of bull trout, especially in places where the threatened fish has the best chance to persist for years to come,” said Mike Carrier, state supervisor for the Service’s Idaho Fish and Wildlife Office. “The focus is now on the threats to bull trout at the local scale and how we can abate them to stabilize or increase populations."

The Idaho office led the Fish and Wildlife Service’s five-state planning effort.

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Carrier said the overarching goal of the recovery plan is to conserve bull trout so the species is geographically widespread with stable populations in each of the six recovery units.

Accordingly, the plan’s recovery criteria focus on effective management of known threats to bull trout. The Coastal, Columbia Headwaters, Klamath, Mid-Columbia, Saint Mary and Upper Snake are the six designated recovery units that are home to the threatened population in the lower 48 states.

Delisting may be warranted for the Columbia Headwaters Recovery Unit – which includes the most Montana bull trout habitat - when primary threats are effectively managed in at least 75 percent of all areas.

The Fish and Wildlife Service identified 32 critical habitats, representing 19,729 river miles and 488,252 surface acres of bull trout habitat, in 2010. That designation has informed and contributed to the final recovery plan.

The document lists some of the primary threats to bull trout in Montana, including legacy forest practices, such as road building, that continue to cause sediment to be washed into formerly pristine spawning tributaries.

Non-native species like lake trout in places like Priest Lake and Flathead Lake have decimated entire populations of bull trout due to predation, and loss of bull trout from angling and occasional poaching contributes to mortality in some ecosystems.

In eight of the 10 areas where habitat threats are considered primary, the threats are typically related to forest practices, livestock grazing and the presence of roads.

These activities may cause habitat degradation of riparian zones, sediment delivery that leads to over-widened stream channels and poor bull trout embryo survival, elimination of pool habitat and loss of structure in the form of large woody debris.

Agricultural practices, including cropland and irrigation diversions, have contributed to habitat loss by reducing streamflows and increasing sedimentation, thereby limiting juvenile recruitment of migratory bull trout.

These impacts are visible in the Clark Fork River, the Bitterroot River, Rock Creek, the Blackfoot River and the Kootenai, where subadult and adult bull trout reside year-round in large streams and rivers.

The impact of widespread residential development of the riparian habitat, especially in the Bitterroot Valley, reduces the natural form and function of rivers by simplifying complex habitat and reducing the amount and quality of that habitat.

This is caused by ever-increasing encroachment on the floodplain and subsequent efforts to control bank erosion to protect property and modify riparian vegetation.

A 2004 review of the Bitterroot River found that about 12 percent of its streambanks were artificially armored, reducing natural lateral bends in the river that collect the large woody debris that provides complex fish habitat.

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Not everyone is happy with the plan, however.

We don’t think it’s a recovery plan,” said Mike Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a Montana-based environmental group. “It’s more of an extinction plan. They are arbitrarily allowing 25 percent of local bull trout populations to go extinct without considering if these populations are significant to the recovery of the species.”

Arlene Montgomery, the program manager for Friends of the Wild Swan, said that because the plan does not include habitat standards or population criteria – an acceptable level of the number of fish – it is not possible to gauge whether threats are being “managed.”

“Without habitat standards to measure temperature, sediment and other parameters vital to bull trout survival and recovery, the agency isn’t able to determine whether habitat is being improved or degraded,” she said. “Likewise, without population criteria, it isn’t possible to measure trends or distribution of bull trout to see whether they are increasing and on the road to recovery.”

She said population criteria is also essential so inbreeding and loss of genetic variation do not further weaken the bull trout’s viability at a local level.

Garrity said bull trout numbers had already been reduced by 60 percent at the time of the 1999 endangered species listing.

“This recovery plan lowers the bar,” he said. “They are going to declare them recovered, but they won’t really be recovered. It’s more of a ‘feel good plan’ than a recovery plan. The population criteria is essential to measure if they are being recovered or not.”

To view the full plan for the Columbia Headwaters Recovery Unit, visit http://www.fws.gov/pacific/bulltrout/pdf/Final_Columbia_Headwaters_RUIP_092915.pdf.

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