by Rob Chaney of the Missoulian
Threatened bull trout have won a huge increase in the amount of critical habitat that now qualifies for federal oversight.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed Bush administration policy and published new rules to help recover the fish, which requires cold, clear water to survive. The change covers large portions of Montana’s mountain waterways.
The new rule designates 22,679 miles of streams and 533,426 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Montana Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Nevada as critical habitat for the wide-ranging fish. That includes 985 miles of marine shoreline in Washington.
“We voluntarily embarked on this re-examination to ensure that the best science was used to identify the features and areas essential to the conservation of the species,” said Robyn Thorson, director of FWS’ Pacific Region. Bull trout were listed as a threatened species in 1999.
“The report found a former Department of Interior political appointee had inappropriately influenced the outcome of the final 2005 designation by directing large areas of habitat to be excluded from what was proposed in 2004,” a FWS news release noted. That referred to former deputy assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald, who resigned in 2007 after her actions were spotlighted.
“I’m thrilled with what the Obama administration has done,” said Alliance for the Wild Rockies director Michael Garrity. “We’ve been fighting the Fish and Wildlife Service on this issue since about 1992. They’ve finally listened to their own experts.”
In Montana, the decision affects about 3,094 miles of stream and 223,762 acres of lakes and reservoirs. Under the 2005 rule, only disconnected patches of 1,058 miles of stream and 31,916 acres of lakes were included.
Affected counties include Deer Lodge, Flathead, Glacier, Granite, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Mineral, Missoula, Powell, Ravalli and Sanders. Only those waters that currently have bull trout spawning, rearing or migratory connections, or where trout foraging and over-wintering occur, were included.
Those waterways are not made into refuges or conservation areas. But any proposed activity there that requires a federal permit, license or funding would have to show it would not hurt the fish habitat. Private actions on private land are not affected by the rule. Neither is boating or fishing, although the Endangered Species Act prohibits taking bull trout.
Public meetings to outline the new rules are set for Feb. 16 at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. in the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks office in Missoula, 3201 Spurgin Road. More information can also be found at mountain-prairie.fws.gov/fish/bulltrout.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.