The federal government unveiled a dramatically downsized critical habitat designation plan for bull trout Wednesday, saying the threatened fish receive enough protection in many areas of the Inland Northwest through existing state programs and voluntary conservation agreements.
Two years ago, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists proposed designating about 18,000 miles of streams and nearly 500,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs in the region as critical habitat for the fish.
The final plan cuts about 90 percent of the waterways from the designation. Bull trout in all waterways will continue to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.
“The service found there were many areas that already had conservation efforts in place and did not need to be designated,” according to a statement from Dave Allen, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Region. “In other areas, the service found that the social and economic cost of a designation outweighed the conservation benefit.”
Critical habitat designation requires federal agencies give special consideration to bull trout protection when planning logging, mining, hydropower or other development projects. Private land typically is not affected, though private grazing leases on public lands are more carefully scrutinized in designated habitat areas.
Earlier this year, the agency estimated it would cost $300 million to protect bull trout. Conservationists criticized the figure, saying it did not account for the economic benefits of clean water and fishing-based tourism.
Conservation groups condemned the critical habitat designation plan and expressed surprise at the extent of the rollback. All of Montana was excluded from designation, as was most of Idaho south of Coeur d’Alene and the Upper Columbia River basin of Washington.
“It sounds like we’re really going to be taken to the dogs on this one,” said Loren Albright, a Sandpoint resident and national trustee for Trout Unlimited.
The plan designates as critical habitat 1,748 miles of streams and 61,235 acres of lakes in the Columbia and Klamath River basins of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Bull trout habitat in undesignated portions of the region will continue to receive protection under state and voluntary programs.
The Pend Oreille River, which is one of the last strongholds for the fish in Eastern Washington, was included in the critical habitat designation. The Methow, Wenatchee and Entiat rivers were absent from the plan.
The major tributaries to North Idaho’s big three lakes – Priest, Pend Oreille and Coeur d’Alene – also were designated critical habitat, as was all of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Albright was disappointed to learn that the Kootenai and Clearwater river basins were not included in the final plan. He also said designations should have extended into the smallest feeder creeks. Bull trout are big fish worthy of their name, but they need pristine, cold creeks for spawning.
“That’s where the fish spawn,” Albright said. “There’s not a lot that spawn in the main rivers. If you’re not protecting the tributaries, you’re not protecting the fish.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service claims the fish receive “far superior” protection from Washington’s Forest Practices Act and Montana’s conservation program, according to a statement released Wednesday from the agency. Idaho’s work in the Snake River Basin also was cited.
Critical habitat designation would merely tie up scarce dollars in bureaucracy and reduce management flexibility, according to the statement from the agency. “In 30 years of implementing the Endangered Species Act, the service has found that the designation of critical habitat provides little additional protection to most listed species,” the statement said.
Darrell Kerby, mayor of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, said he doubts critical habitat designation in the Kootenai River system would have made any difference. The river is already listed as critical habitat for white sturgeon, but the designation has not changed how the river is managed.
“Not one iota,” Kerby said. “The critter itself is already listed.”
If anything, additional layers of Endangered Species Act protection only seems to hurt recovery efforts, Kerby said. Landowners have been more willing to cooperate in the recovery of burbot – a freshwater codfish that has narrowly escaped federal protection – than white sturgeon, he said.
“The recovery efforts for the burbot are broader in perspective and broader in their effect,” he said. “We’re pretty excited as a community to work with landowners in a collaborative approach.”
Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, sees the shortened critical habitat designation list as evidence of politics elbowing science out of federal fish and wildlife management plans. He also cited last month’s announcement by the federal government that dams pose no risk for the recovery of threatened and endangered salmon.
“I don’t think it’s surprising,” Sedivy said. “That kind of reduction is what we’re seeing from the Bush administration. One just needs to look at the new draft salmon recovery plan. They’re falling all over themselves going backward.”