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On a hill overlooking the Bitterroot River, Will McDowell, center, from the Clark Fork Coalition speaks to a crowd of people from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and others on Tuesday. McDowell discussed the conservation opportunites of the Bitterroot and subbasin. Photo by MEGAN GIBSON/Missoulian

FLORENCE - High on a hilltop, far from any streambed or power line, a big group of experts gathered to talk fish and electricity.

The crowd included state and federal biologists, conservation group organizers, watershed activists, ranch managers and Bonneville Power Administration researchers. They'd all come together on a sunny Tuesday afternoon above Florence to make a pitch to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to save the endangered bull trout.

This all really does hang together. First the hilltop: As Mike Mueller of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation explained, this old family ranch is part of a skinny corridor between the multimillion acres of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem to the north and the multimillion-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the west. The north end of the Bitterroot Valley also harbors some of the last strongholds of the bull trout, which was designated an Environmental Protection Act threatened species in 1998.

Next, the group: Bitterroot Water Forum member Laurie Riley displayed a telephone-book-sized "subbasin plan" that explained why this river and landscape are environmentally critical, what's here to protect and what could be done to make things better. The plan drew on the research from all the above agencies, groups and activists.

Last, the audience: The Northwest Power and Conservation Council. This body's governing board is in Missoula this week to consider some coming changes to electricity production in the Pacific Northwest. But it's spending almost half its time on how to improve fish and wildlife conditions in the same region.

The council oversees much of the work that the Bonneville Power Administration does in operating 31 hydroelectric dams and one nuclear power plant in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. But BPA is also responsible for mitigating years of environmental damage done by its operations.

Some of that work happens directly on BPA facilities, such as a new fish ladder built into its Thompson Falls dam. But lots of other activity takes place in the drainages and mountains far from the dams. A big example is the recovery of the bull trout.

"We're hoping the council adopts the bull trout as its freshwater fish mascot for the next 10 years or so," said Ted Koch, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish coordinator who presented his agency's interests to the council. USFWS is charged with returning the bull trout to recovered status, and is looking for partners in the effort.

That's where the Northwest Power and Conservation Council comes in, according to its fish and wildlife manager Peter Paquet. The council doesn't control BPA, but it does guide the power agency in its efforts to do fish and wildlife mitigation. By reviewing and authorizing subbasin plans, it sets the priorities for where BPA does its work.

The council also vets on-the-ground projects that BPA could either do or contribute to. And the group on the hillside had lots of ideas, from installing screens that keep fish from getting stranded in irrigation ditches to underwriting conservation easements that could keep the north Bitterroot Valley a wildlife corridor.

The Bitterroot Subbasin Plan gets a public hearing Wednesday at 10:15 a.m. in the council's DoubleTree Hotel conference room. For more information about its agenda, check www.nwcouncil.org/news/2010/06/Default.asp.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com

 

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