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Federal agencies have agreed to consult with one another over management of bull trout in the East Fork of Rock Creek and in the St. Mary River drainage, but the results of their talks will come with a price tag.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue in September 2019 saying the federal agencies managing bull trout in those drainages violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to complete formal consultation to protect the trout, which are listed as a “threatened” population. The notice specified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in both cases, and the Bureau of Reclamation in connection with the St. Mary River and the Beaverhead/Deer Lodge National Forest in regards to Rock Creek.

Earlier this month, the three federal agencies sent letters to lawyers for the Alliance, agreeing to undertake the formal consultation.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will put out a biological decision, and that becomes the legal document they have to follow,” Mike Garrity, the Alliance’s executive director, said on Monday. “That’s why consultation is important.”

Garrity said his organization wants fish screens to be installed for both of the bull trout populations to keep them from being flushed either into stream channels or diversion ditches that dry up or experience low, warm flows seasonally.

“Installing self-cleaning fish screens at the point of diversion is a simple and effective way to keep bull trout from dying in irrigation ditches,” Garrity said.

Steve Davies, the Montana area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the agency can't just install screens on the St. Mary Diversion Dam, which sends water into the St. Mary Canal. Instead, he said the nearly 100-year-old structure needs to be rebuilt, with those who benefit from using the water being responsible for 74% of the estimated $42 million price tag. That includes ranchers, farmers and five municipalities along Montana's Hi-Line.

"We've been studying St. Mary and bull trout for over 20 years, and they're doing pretty well there. But we are not in compliance with the Endangered Species Act relative to enacting what it said in the notice of intent to sue — we have incidental take, and there's concern with their ability to pass through the dam," Davies said on Monday. "It's a matter of fact that we are not in compliance, but the cost component has really affected the timeline."

Still, his agency will prepare a biological assessment and present it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees management of endangered or threatened species. That agency will then issue a biological opinion as to whether the proposed management activities will help or continue to harm bull trout.

Davies said he doesn't know the timeline for that work to be completed.

"It will take us a while to prepare the biological assessment; on the plus side, we have over 20 years of studies with the Service and Reclamation in the drainage, so we have a lot of information already collected," Davies said. "How long the Service will take with the biological opinion will depend on what we present in the biological assessment."

Reclamation would then seek a federal appropriation as part of its budget, with 74% of the cost passed onto the water users. He added, however, that the affected communities are working with Montana's congressional delegation to seek other funding to pay for the dam's replacement.

A fish screen already has been installed on the East Fork reservoir on Rock Creek, but in the notice of intent to sue, attorney Tim Bechtold wrote that in a 2013 biological opinion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified several areas of concerns to bull trout, including the pool height of the East Fork reservoir, flushing and instream flows, and degraded stream channels.

The subsequent decision notice said the U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service would address the impact by working with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation on controlling water storage and the volume of water releases, and better managing water diverted into the Flint Creek Ditch. Those items haven't occurred, which Bechtold said is illegal.

Representatives with the Beaverhead/Deer Lodge National Forest said the reservoir management discussions are continuing with DNRC, but they're complicated by trying to ensure that downstream irrigators can get their water rights fulfilled while creating conditions to help bull trout thrive.

Kevin Weinner, a forest hydrologist, said an advisory committee has been discussing the issues and even had one fish screen installed, but they haven't formed a management plan for the river yet. Garrity's notice helped spur that next step. One of the big issues involves the socio-economic impacts to the irrigators, and Weinner said if they can work out how to increase the amount of water stored in the reservoir that might be enough to provide the flows necessary for bull trout while ensuring all water rights users get their fair share.

"Is keeping more water in the reservoir better, or using it downstream or for flushing flows better? We've talked about this pretty in-depth for the last decade," Weinner said. "We've been dragging our feet for a couple reasons; the biological component is complicated, and if we can get the money to better manage the bull trout, we can circumvent the social and political issues in the watershed.

"This puts some obligations on the Forest Service to follow through with the formal consultations, even though we did informal ones for years."

Betsy Herrmann, a Forest Service staff officer, added that the complexity of the issue is what's making the process take so long.

"If it was simple, it could have been taken care of years ago," Herrmann said. "But when you're talking about conservation of endangered species, water rights and multiple entities, it takes time. The technical team made some great progress and gathered critical data, and I think we're ready for the next step so we've initiated consultation with the Service."

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