GRANTS PASS, Ore. — The Obama administration today greatly expanded protections for waterways critical to the restoration of threatened bull trout, making it tougher for agencies to approve logging, mining and livestock grazing across a large swath of federal land in the West.
The final rule issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service represented a major expansion of the streams, lakes and reservoirs protected as critical habitat for the fish, primarily on federal lands in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Nevada, and a reversal of Bush administration policy on endangered species.
The new ruling protects 19,000 miles of streams, which is five times more than the 2005 rule, and 490,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs, which is more than three times greater than previously ordered. But the 754 miles of marine shoreline in Washington state was a reduction to make room for U.S. Navy testing grounds.
Faced with a lawsuit, Fish and Wildlife agreed last year to revise the 2005 critical habitat designation after an inspector general’s report found it was among dozens of decisions improperly interfered with by former deputy assistant secretary of Interior Julie MacDonald, who resigned in 2007.
“We don’t know if this decision will be challenged, but if it is we believe it will be sustained because we have made a scrupulous effort to apply the science as rigorously and as well as we can,” said Michael Bean, special counselor to the assistant secretary of Interior for fish, wildlife and parks.
The bull trout is not a trout, but a char. Its numbers have declined about 60 percent, and it has disappeared from about half its historical range due to logging, mining, dam construction, and livestock grazing that have warmed and muddied the water it lives in and cut off migration routes. Nonnative fish species introduced for anglers compete for scarce habitat. It survives mostly in backcountry areas far from people.
“Protecting and restoring their habitat contributes not only to the recovery of the species, but to the water quality of rivers and lakes throughout their range,” Fish and Wildlife Pacific Regional Director Robyn Thorson said in a statement.
Typical of high-profile fish and wildlife, all the significant actions by the federal government to restore healthy populations have come out of lawsuits brought by conservation groups, many dating back to the Clinton administration.
Two small Montana conservation groups, Friends of the Wild Swan and Alliance for the Wild Rockies, initially petitioned Fish and Wildlife to list bull trout as a threatened species in 1992. They followed up with seven separate lawsuits to force the agency to comply with the law along the way, winning every one.
The critical habitat designation leaves only a recovery plan to be done.
“Before, if they were going to log or mine any kind of project in bull trout habitat, they just had to see if it would cause the extinction of the entire population throughout the drainage. It’s almost impossible to say that,” said Michael Garrity of Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Now you can’t adversely modify critical habitat with any project. So it’s a much higher bar of protection for bull trout, which should lead to recovery.”
Garrity said they had a similar draft rule during the Clinton administration, but the Bush administration knocked that back to very little before the latest revision.
“We’re going to uncork the good champagne with the idea that this battle is over, and the bull trout won,” Garrity said.
An economic analysis estimates the habitat protections will increase federal government spending $5 million to $7.6 million a year over the next 20 years. Costs include more time for biologists to consider if federal projects will harm bull trout habitat, and for restoring habitat, improving fish passage around dams primarily in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and changing forest management.
The analysis recognized economic benefits from improved water quality, flood protection, aesthetic improvements and recreational fishing, but did not put a value on them.
The bull trout’s critical habitat includes 8,772 miles of streams and 170,218 acres of Idaho lakes and reservoirs; 2,836 miles of streams and 30,256 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Oregon; 3,793 miles of streams, 66,308 acres of lakes and reservoirs, and 754 miles of marine shoreline in Washington state; 3,056 miles of streams and 221,471 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Montana; and 72 miles of streams in Nevada.