by Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
In a major reversal of Bush administration policy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to designate more than 22,600 miles of streams in the northwestern U.S. as critical habitat for the bull trout, a signature fish of the cold, clear rivers and mountain lakes of the region, known for its large head — and dwindling numbers.
The new proposal, which also includes nearly 534,000 acres of lakes in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Nevada, is more than five times the federal government’s initial proposal in 2005, which would have set aside only about 3,800 miles of streams and 144,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs.
“This proposed revision is the result of extensive review of our earlier bull trout critical habitat proposals and 2005 designation, public comments and new information,” said Robyn Thorson, director of the wildlife service’s Pacific region. “We voluntarily embarked on this reexamination to ensure that the best science was used to identify the features and areas essential to the conservation of the species.”
Protecting the extra trout habitat will cost about $5 million to $7 million a year more than the government’s previous plan, according to a draft economic analysis. It will cost up to an additional $2.5 million a year to provide possible fish passage improvements at dams, the analysis said, and up to $1.65 million a year in possible forest improvements.
The new designation proposal, which will be the subject of public meetings next month across the region, follows complaints that former Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald, a Bush-era appointee who oversaw the endangered species program, interfered with at least 13 decisions about endangered species listings and critical habitat designations, including that for the bull trout.
MacDonald, an inspector general investigation concluded, overruled many of the government’s own scientists in excluding federal lands, reservoirs, unoccupied streams and other potential habitat from the area designated for protection to help bring back the fish.
Conservationists sued, and the federal government itself offered to take a new look at it after the inspector general’s findings about MacDonald, who resigned in 2007, were released.
Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in Montana, which along with Montana’s Friends of the Wild Swan sued to force the second look, said the new proposal would restore crucial segments of habitat for the trout and also would provide connections between populations that are vital to restoring the species.
“Bull trout have been listed for a while,” Garrity said. “But critical habitat is important. If you don’t have that, and the Fish and Wildlife Service consults on a project, to stop it, they would have to show that the project would cause the extinction of the species. With critical habitat, you just have to show it would adversely affect the habitat. So it’s a much [lower] bar.”
FWS officials said protecting trout habitat has benefits across the region because it will require protection of the cold, clear water upon which the trout depend.
Bull trout, protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1999, are now found in less than half their historic range.