by Sandra Chereb, Associated Press Writer
RENO, Nev. (AP) — The Jarbidge River – home to the southernmost population of bull trout and a source of contention between the federal government and citizen activists – would be declared critical habitat for the threatened fish under a proposal announced Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The proposal targets 131 miles of the river and its tributaries in northeastern Nevada and southwestern Idaho that the agency believes is crucial to the species’ recovery.
The same proposal seeks to designate critical habitat for the Coastal-Puget Sound bull trout population in Washington and the St. Mary-Belly River population in Montana.
In Washington, the proposal identifies 2,300 miles of streams, 52,500 acres of lakes and 985 miles of marine habitat along the coast. Habitat in Montana would encompass 88 miles of streams and 6,300 acres of lakes.
In Nevada, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Bob Williams said designation of the Jarbidge would not necessarily prevent the U.S. Forest Service from rebuilding a washed out road on national forest land that has become a line in the dirt between federal land stewards and residents who claim the road is owned by the Elko County.
“It’s not the sky falling down. It’s not as big a deal as it may sound,” Williams said, adding the proposal would add emphasis to the bull trout’s plight.
“In a nutshell, it’s mostly a designation so everybody knows where critical habitat is,” he said. “It’s a snapshot of where we will be focusing with respect to a recovery plan.”
Experts differ on how many bull trout remain in Nevada. The government estimates they are no more than half the 2,000 adult fish that the American Fisheries Society believes are necessary to keep a species alive.
Bob Vaught, supervisor of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, said the designation as critical habitat likely wouldn’t affect his agency’s pending decision on whether South Canyon Road can be rebuilt.
“We know bull trout are there and we’ve already considered that in our analysis,” he said.
“This designation is really more about recovery of the species, rather than a specific project.”
Elko County officials aren’t so sure.
“We think it may make things more difficult, but we’ll see how it rolls out,” said Kristin McQueary, chief civil deputy for the Elko County District Attorney’s Office.
The plan, along with maps, is to be published in Friday’s Federal Register. Public comment will be accepted until Aug. 25, and Williams said public meetings are planned.
The critical habitat designations are part of a settlement with two environmental groups, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Wild Swan, who sued the agency after it failed to identify habitat areas when it listed the fish as a threatened species in 1999.
Critical habitat areas for other populations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana were proposed last year and are expected to be decided in September.
Mike Garritty of the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the designations will benefit the fish, the environment and local economies.
“Protecting this habitat also helps people, because you’re protecting clean water,” he said.
“None of this limits access to public lands,” he added. “It just asks people to be responsible in their use of public lands.”
The Jarbidge dispute began in 1995 when floods washed out South Canyon Road, a 1.5 mile stretch in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest that parallels the river and leads to a campground and wilderness area.
Three years later, Elko County sent a road crew to make repairs despite the Forest Service’s insistence that it couldn’t be done without harming the stream bed and the fish.
A legal battle ensued and the Shovel Brigade – a citizen’s group critical of the Forest Service and federal land management practices – was formed. The group got its name when thousands of shovels were donated to it by sympathizers from around the West.
Hundreds of people turned out over the Fourth of July in 2000 to remove large boulders that blocked the road and rebuild a portion of it with picks and shovels.
A year later, after months of court-ordered mediation, an agreement was reached that gave Elko County a permanent right of way to the road, which the county claims it has owned all along.
The county also agreed to pay for repairs after environmental studies funded by the Forest Service were conducted to determine if the work could be done. Those studies have not been completed.
But environmentalists challenged the agreement, arguing the Forest Service lacked authority to cede ownership of a U.S. road to the county.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal agreed, and a federal judge in Reno set aside the agreement last June.
Since then, lawyers for all parties have been trying to resolve the issue over how the Forest Service can legally give Elko County an easement or right of way, Vaught said.
He said a draft environmental study has been completed, but it won’t be released and a decision on the road’s fate won’t be announced until the easement is resolved.
Garritty, however, questioned whether rebuilding the road is possible, given the latest habitat proposal.
“You can’t have roads right next to a creek with bull trout in it because sediments go into the creek,” he said. “It’s not compatible with clean water to have an all-terrain vehicle driving through the water or next to the stream bed.