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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Officials considering bringing bull trout to Sullivan Lake

State and federal fisheries managers want to bring bull trout into a lake in Pend Oreille County, a move they say will help recover the threatened species.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Kalispel Tribe and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that they are considering reintroducing bull trout to Sullivan Lake and its primary tributary Harvey Creek.

The work would be meant to aid in the recovery of the species, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and is absent from wide swaths of its historic range, including the mountains of far northeastern Washington and the streams that drain into the lower Pend Oreille River.

If the proposal moves forward, the fish could be moved into Sullivan Lake as early as 2025, and releases would take place over four to eight years. Officials hope the population would become self-sustaining, and that it could become a source for other introductions in the lower Pend Oreille drainage.

“It’s believed that they are now functionally extinct from that part of their range,” said Jeff Chan, a bull trout species lead for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington. “This effort would begin to restore bull trout within the lower Pend Oreille River system.”

Mike Lithgow, a spokesman for the Kalispel Tribe, said bull trout were once an important food source for the Kalispel people, and that the tribe hopes reintroducing the fish could eventually lead to a population that anglers could target.

“We’d love to see a success around the recovery of the species,” Lithgow said. “This is a positive step in that direction.”

The proposal is in its infancy. Officials are taking public comment on the idea through the end of April, and they are planning a public meeting in Metaline Falls later this month.

Bull trout are technically a member of the char family. They’re green with light, pale spots, and they grow large, sometimes surpassing two feet. Once they become adults, they feed largely on smaller fish.

The fish are native to several western states and western Canada. While they are abundant enough for anglers to target them in some areas, including parts of Western Washington and North Idaho, they’ve disappeared from others.

When they were listed as threatened in 1999, the fish had been extirpated from about 60% of their habitat, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Conservation work has helped the fish hang on in many places, and they’re still found in five states – Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Nevada.

Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille is home to one of the most robust bull trout populations in the Lower 48, but the fish have been effectively absent below Albeni Falls Dam.

Chris Donley, WDFW’s eastern region fish program manager, said bull trout used to travel downstream from Lake Pend Oreille and into tributaries in the Selkirks to spawn. The construction of the dam east of Newport spoiled that, creating a barrier that the fish can’t get past to continue their migration.

The fish have also been forced to compete for food and space with non-native fish, like brook trout and northern pike, and climate change has made snowpack less reliable and led to warmer water temperatures.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s bull trout recovery plan identified reintroducing the fish to the lower Pend Oreille River system as a way to help the species, and it mentioned Sullivan Lake as one potential location.

In 2017, biologists analyzed a number of waterbodies in the area for their ability to support the introduction of bull trout. The fish need clean, cold water, ideally 59 degrees and lower. Habitat complexity and connectivity are also important – meaning a system free of impassable barriers that allows the fish to move around.

The analysis found that Sullivan Lake was the best option. Chan said it’s unclear whether bull trout lived in the lake historically, though they did exist in the lower parts of the Sullivan Creek drainage, but that it offers an “ideal setting” for the fish.

It’s over 300 feet deep in spots, and it stays plenty cold. Westslope cutthroat, kokanee salmon and mountain whitefish live in the lake, and they could provide a strong food base for the threatened fish. It also lacks species that pose threats to bull trout.

Harvey Creek, which dumps into the south end of the lake, could become a good spawning tributary for the fish. It drains north-facing slopes, and should stay cold enough.

In its announcement this week, WDFW said the project is not expected to impact recreation on the Forest Service land surrounding Sullivan Lake, but that fishing on Harvey Creek could be limited to protect bull trout during spawning season.

Donley said they expect the fish would use the creek to spawn and then move back into the lake for the rest of the year. But it’s also possible some of the fish could remain in the creek year-round. The only way they’ll know is by putting the fish into the lake and seeing what happens.

“We’re going to be learning a lot of these things as we go,” Donley said. “It’s hard to anticipate what’s going to happen until we try it.”

Bull trout populations in North Idaho would be the source for the fish that would be released in Sullivan Lake. Andy Dux, fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Panhandle region, said the agency has agreed to provide fish from Lake Pend Oreille, though they still have to finalize some details of the plan – such as which age classes of fish would be used.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has introduced bull trout in other places, and they’ve seen varied success, Chan said. On the Clackamas River in Oregon, for example, he said the fish haven’t responded as quickly as they’d like.

Meanwhile, efforts in Glacier National Park in Montana to move fish into waters devoid of lake trout found more success.

“There’s not a guarantee of success,” Chan said. “We think all the right elements for Sullivan are there.”