Last Chance for the Bull Trout

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently issued its proposal for designating critical habitat for the threatened bull trout. Covering approximately 23,000 stream miles, 1,000 miles of coastal shoreline and over a half million acres of lakes and reservoirs in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Nevada, it is one of the most sweeping agency actions in recent memory. It also stands in stark contrast to the “final” critical habitat proposal crafted by the previous administration, which was struck down by a federal judge.

The bull trout are the quintessential indicator species. Actually a char, they came from the north with the glaciers and thus favor colder water than other native salmonids. They are also more sensitive to habitat impacts including sedimentation. Their presence indicates high water quality. Each fall they undertake tremendous spawning journeys up to 100 miles. They reach legendary size, frequently exceeding 30 inches and 20 pounds. Big bulls are known to snap fly rods in half.

Historically, just about every mountain stream and river system in the northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest had native bull trout, but a century of mining, logging, road building and cattle ranching took its toll and bull trout were listed as a threatened species via the Endangered Species Act in 1998, following years of legal actions by Montana groups Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Wild Swan.

The agency’s top scientists prepared a habitat proposal similar to the current version, based upon the best available information. It was severely altered by former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie McDonald, who cut the proposal by more than 80%. McDonald’s role was criticized in an Inspector General report that found McDonald had improperly interfered in over a dozen endangered species decisions. With no biological training of her own, the top-down management stifled freedom of expression and allowed politics to trump science as a dominant influence in agency decision-making.

The current proposal represents a positive policy shift. When President Obama tapped Colorado rancher-Senator Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior, both emphasized their intent to reinstate the role of science in management and policy. By restoring the bull trout habitat proposal shaped by professional biologists, they have shown good intent towards keeping their promise.

It is important to understand what critical habitat is and what it is not. A critical habitat designation does not create a federal conservation reserve. Nor does it allow government officials entry onto private lands. Its chief purpose is to protect the Primary Constituent Elements of bull trout habitat including low water temperature, low sediment levels, connectivity for migration, sensitive spawning grounds and riparian habitat including shade. The latter is essential in the face of climate change predictions.

Moreover, a critical habitat designation will not create a financial burden. The FWS estimates the costs at $5 to $7 million annually for 20 years. However, most of these costs are already covered by actions for salmon and steelhead recovery.

Critical habitat is an under-appreciated cornerstone of the Endangered Species Act. The most well-known provision of Section 7 requires formal consultation on potentially harmful projects and prohibits the illegal “taking” of a listed species. It can be thought of as a brake on extinction, meant to maintain the status quo and prevent further declines. The problem with stopping there is obvious; species languish on the list for decades while federal regulations remain in force.

Critical habitat is the more forward-looking component of the ESA. It requires the agency to identify habitat essential for both survival and recovery so that restoration actions can be prioritized and implemented, and the species eventually de-listed. Once we have this information, this process can be a magnet attracting funds from federal, state and private foundation sources. Partnerships for restoration include state and county governments, area schools, private organizations and businesses.

As a primary indicator of water quality and watershed health, bull trout recovery is important to our future quality of life. This is an opportunity to effect comprehensive watershed restoration. There are also economic opportunities. These include revitalized fisheries, improved water quality and the restoration jobs that are necessary to accomplish these goals. If conditions in our streams and lakes improve for bull trout, other trout and salmon species including native cutthroat, steelhead, rainbows and browns will also benefit. Ultimately, it is we ourselves who will benefit the most.

Overall, the draft proposal for critical habitat is strong and based on good science. As with any process of this size, there are a few spots that have slipped through the cracks. These include the Upper Clark Fork River and key tributaries in Montana and the Upper Deschutes River basin in Oregon.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has asked the public whether several Habitat Conservation Agreements on National Forest, state, Plum Creek and other lands are sufficient to the point that these areas should be exempted from critical habitat designations. It is important that people weigh in strongly against any proposed exemptions, particularly on federal public lands, where most of the remaining bull trout reside.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is accepting public comment through March 15. Those interested in commenting should visit:

MIKE BADER is a conservationist and blues guitarist living in Missoula, Montana. His band will be performing at the Trail’s End Blues Bar in Oregon City on March 20th. He can be reached at:



Mike Bader is an independent consultant in Missoula, Montana with nearly 40 years of experience in land management and species protection. In his early career he was a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone involved in grizzly bear management and research. He has published several papers on grizzly bears and is the co-author of a recent paper on grizzly bear denning and demographic connectivity that has been accepted for publication in a scientific journal.