On January 13th, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a new critical habitat designation for bull trout throughout the Northwest, including western Montana. The new draft — offering four-to-six times more protected waters than a previous proposal — includes 21,694 miles of stream habitat and 533,426 acres of reservoirs and lakes in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Nevada.
Protecting and restoring bull trout habitat will help this threatened species recover. It will also improve water quality throughout the Northwest, spur investment in watershed restoration, and help support Montana’s $226 million fishing industry. This designation goes a long ways towards achieving those goals.
In Montana, the proposal includes 3,094 stream miles and 223,762 acres of lakes and reservoirs. The plan covers federal lands, reservoirs and even currently unoccupied habitat necessary to maintaining migration routes between isolated species. The new draft is seen as an improvement over the last two proposals in 2002 and 2005.
The 2005 designation covered just 3,828 miles of stream and 143,218 acres of lakes and reservoirs. An inspector general determined that former Deputy Secretary of Interior Julie McDonald improperly interfered with the process to exclude waters that should have been designated.
The 2010 bull trout proposal represents a four-fold increase in river miles and six-fold increase in lake and reservoir acres. Nearly 60 percent of this is already protected by salmon critical habitat.
The bull trout is not a trout, but a char, and needs clean, cold, connected water in order to migrate and survive. It occupies about half of its historic range, primarily due to degraded and warmer habitat. As a member of the char family, bull trout have evolved to need very cold water conditions. Average summer stream temperatures should ideally be less than 58º F., while spawning and rearing habitats should be 48º F. or less. With their strict habitat requirements, bull trout are especially sensitive to changes in water temperature. New approaches are needed to ensure that climate change does not undo all of the combined efforts to protect and restore bull trout and other native fish.
Global warming is predicted to alter freshwater flows, especially in places like Montana and Idaho, where up to 80 percent of annual precipitation has traditionally fallen as snow. Spring runoff is already beginning earlier, resulting in low water flows during the summer and fall months. This could have a negative impact on bull trout, which spawn in August and September.
Even with a critical habitat designation, important bull trout populations in Montana, including several in the last strongholds within the fish’s range -– the Swan watershed, Flathead Lake and the middle and north forks, and on the west side of Glacier National Park — could eventually be gone if we don’t solve problems related to invasive species, such as lake trout.
Despite the challenges posed by invasives, the designation of critical habitat is very important for the recovery of bull trout, and there are economic benefits from protecting its 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 related to bull trout recovery.
Critical habitat designations also provide extra regulatory protection that may require special management considerations; these watersheds will be prioritized for restoration, which will benefit all aquatic species. So come out for trout!
The FWS is seeking public comment on the bull trout designation through March 15th. To view and comment on the proposal click here, or visit: http://www.fws.gov/pacific/bulltrout. And come out for trout!
The FWS has scheduled public information meetings (for learning more and submitting comments). The agency will also hold hearings across the northwest.
The Missoula public information meeting is Tuesday, February 16th from 3:00–8:00 p.m. at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 3201 Spurgin Rd. Other informational meetings include:
• February 11, 2010, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.: Post Falls, Idaho: Red Lion Templins Inn, 414 East 1st Avenue
• February 25, 2010, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.: Boise, Idaho: Boise Centre on the Grove, 850 W. Front Street (followed by Public Hearing from 7 to 9 p.m.).
A public hearing will be held February 25, 2010, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., in Boise, Idaho, at the Boise Centre on the Grove, 850 W. Front Street.
This column was written by Missoula-based Bob Clark, Associate Regional Representative for the Sierra Club in Montana.