By Jonathan Brinckman, The Oregonian staff
A five-year legal battle by conservationists forces the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to act
The federal government Thursday added Puget Sound bull trout to the endangered species list, an action that extends federal protection for an obscure but voracious cold water fish across most of the Northwest — 245,000 square miles of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana.
In addition to the Puget Sound listings, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service simultaneously announced protection of bull trout in the St. Mary/Belly River area of northwestern Montana. Three other populations of the fish, including bull trout in the Columbia River Basin and the Klamath River of Southern Oregon, were listed last year and early this year.
Thursday’s Puget Sound listing especially intensifies stream and river protections on the Olympic Peninsula and in populous Seattle — a region already struggling to deal with listings issued earlier this year to protect two species of salmon.
And it strikingly illustrates the power of small conservation groups in setting federal environmental policy. The directives were forced by a succession of rulings in a five-year legal battle by a small but determined coalition of Montana-based conservationists.
On Thursday, the conservationists were jubilant. Mike Bader, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the listings “complete the protection of bull trout.” The result, he said, will be better conservation of streams and rivers throughout the Northwest, something that will mean a more attractive environment for the region’s residents.
“Thank goodness that we have an independent judiciary. The bull trout saga illustrates that the protection of endangered species cannot be left to politicians and bureaucrats,” said Jack Tuholske, the Montana attorney who represented the Montana conservationists.
“This is one of the remarkable examples of why it is important to have citizens’ lawsuits,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Seattle, a national environmental law group. “These small citizens groups can get agencies to move on things that they are supposed to do.”
Industry groups were less pleased.
Cary Hegreberg, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association in Helena, Mont., called it improper that federal environmental policy is driven by activists.
“These environmental activist groups have been highly successful in pushing their land management agendas through the Endangered Species Act,” Hegreberg said. “If enough legal pressure can be brought to bear, a listing is almost inevitable.”
While the listings will likely tighten controls on development and also the use of federal lands, already stringent fishing rules will not change.
Because bull trout are more delicate than salmon and live in rivers that are not accessible from the sea, protecting them is more difficult. Their listings will deepen the impact of the salmon and steelhead listings over the past eight years. Those listings alone account for 24 stocks throughout the American West.
Bull trout, a species of char, are particularly sensitive to environmental disturbance. While salmon require waters at or below 68 degrees, for example, adult bull trout need water at or below 59 degrees. Development of all kinds typically acts to increase water temperature — from creating warmer runoff to eliminating vegetation that shades and cools waterways.
Young bull trout are even more delicate, needing water between 47 degrees and 50 degrees. And bull trout eggs can only incubate in waters below 35 degrees and must go undisturbed for up to 220 days.
Efforts to protect bull trout focus intensely on cooling water by restricting logging along stream banks and ensuring that frigid groundwater — which flows upward into streams from deep in the earth — go undisturbed.
Unlike salmon, most bull trout do not migrate to the sea. The Endangered Species Act rules protecting salmon cover waterways only as far as salmon migrate. Now, rivers behind dams and waterfalls — which cannot be reached by salmon — can come under the law’s authority.
Tim Ceis, director of the Seattle area’s King County ESA office, said the bull trout listing “complicates our efforts.” He added, however, that many measures currently under way to help salmon will also aid bull trout.
The fisheries service said the Puget Sound bull trout population is threatened by habitat degradation, dams, water diversions, and predation by non-native fish.
The service said it is considering a special rule that would allow state agencies and local governments to develop their own conservation plans. By following one such plan, the Forest and Fish Agreement in Washington State, landowners would likely be protected from ESA penalties even if they accidentally harmed a bull trout or its habitat, said Shelly Spalding, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Spalding said that legal rulings were required to force protection of the bull trout because the service had determined other environment problems were of higher priority.
“The service does not like to be driven by the courts, but we were being squeezed for funding,” Spalding said. “If we had more funding, we could do a lot more. We would like to be more proactive.”
The listings announced Thursday become official Nov. 1, when they are posted in the Federal Register.