by Jeff Barnard, Ap Environmental Writer
GRANTS PASS, Ore. — In another reversal of Bush administration Endangered Species Act policy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to more than quadruple habitat protections for the bull trout, a fish that has been harmed by logging, mining and grazing on federal lands.
The agency on Wednesday proposed designating 23,000 miles of streams and 533,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Nevada as critical habitat. The area includes nearly 1,000 miles of marine shoreline in Washington. Final action is due Sept. 30.
The proposal is part of the Obama administration’s continuing efforts to correct problems identified by a 2008 inspector general’s report that found improper political influence affected several Endangered Species Act decisions by the Bush administration, said Michael Bean, special counselor to the assistant secretary of Interior for fish, wildlife and parks.
The agency wants to base all decisions on science and interpretation of the law, Bean said.
“We would certainly like to be in a position where our decisions are not challenged as frequently and certainly not challenged as successfully,” as the Bush administration’s were, he said.
The bull trout is not a trout, but a char, and needs clean, cold water to survive. It no longer swims in about half of its historic range, due to warmer and muddier waters caused by logging, mining, dams and grazing.
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 six separate lawsuits to force the agency to comply with the law along the way, winning every one.
The latest proposal marks the first time Fish and Wildlife has followed the advice of its own scientists on what is needed to restore healthy populations of bull trout, said Michael Garrity of Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
“It’s nice the federal government is following the law,” he said.
Fish and Wildlife reversed Bush administration practices by recognizing that designation of critical habitat is important for the recovery of a species, and that there are economic benefits from protecting wildlife habitat, such as clean water, said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan.
The proposal includes for the first time streams not currently occupied by bull trout but critical to maintaining migration routes between isolated species, she added.
Coming after habitat proposals for the jaguar and polar bear, the bull trout proposal indicates the Obama administration is starting to significantly roll back policies of the Bush administration that undermined the Endangered Species Act, said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Prior to now, it has prioritized reversing energy policy, and some land use,” Suckling said. “I very much hope it signals a real change in heart.”
Suckling said he expects in the next six months to see the administration change a Reagan-era definition of what it means to “adversely affect” critical habitat that had allowed logging, mining and other projects to destroy habitat, so long as they did not directly cause the extinction of a species.
“That will be one of the more significant formal policy decisions in the history of the Endangered Species Act,” Suckling said.
The bull trout proposal represents a fourfold increase in river miles and six-fold increase in lake and reservoir acres. Nearly 60 percent is already protected by salmon critical habitat. An economic impact analysis estimates the government will spend $5 million to $7 million a year for the next 20 years on improvements to dams and forest roads, and biological reviews of projects on federal lands.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said he did not think it would significantly change the amount of forest open to logging, because many levels of fish habitat protection are already in place.
“We are hoping this administration and the agencies make their decisions based on the best science and not based on politics,” he said.
The Interior Department’s inspector general found that Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary who oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service for the Bush administration, improperly interfered with dozens of decisions on endangered species, wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars. She resigned in 2007.