Bull trout are one of the largest native salmonids in Montana, capable of reaching three feet long and 25 pounds or more. A spectacularly beautiful fish, they once occupied an enormous range from the Rockies to the Pacific coast to the Yukon. But due to habitat destruction, dams, and irrigation dewatering, they were listed as ‘Threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act in 1998 and remain far from recovered and more threatened than ever 22 years later.
Bull trout require cold water temperatures, generally below 55 °F, clean gravel beds, deep pools, complex cover with snags and cut banks, and large systems of interconnected waterways to accommodate spawning migrations.
Some of the coldest, cleanest water in Montana comes from the high mountain ranges of Glacier National Park – and sure enough that’s where the bull trout can still be found. Yet, for more than 20 years they have been killed by the hundreds annually in the St. Mary drainage on the east side of Glacier National Park.
The federal dam and irrigation project kills bull trout in a number of ways: The design and management of the Saint Mary Diversion Dam results in entrainment of up to 600 juvenile bull trout each year while impairing the upstream passage of pre-spawning adult bull trout. During the non-irrigation period (typically October-March), Swiftcurrent Creek is completely dewatered from the dam to the Boulder Creek confluence while releases of water from the Sherburne Dam are shut off to refill the reservoir resulting in downstream flows that are too low and far too warm for bull trout survival.
To stop the needless slaughter of bull trout, last September the Alliance sent the Bureau of Reclamation a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue, basically telling the federal government if it follows the law and takes action on this issue in the next 60 days, we won’t have to go to court. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Reclamation has not taken the legally-required actions to protect bull trout and so the Alliance was forced to file suit to stop the unnecessary bull trout carnage.
We had hoped this would be resolved since the Bureau sent us a copy of its letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ‘requesting initiation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) section 7 consultation for bull trout within the Milk River Project, St. Mary Unit, Montana’ and noting ‘Reclamation will be preparing a Biological Assessment for your review as part of this consultation.’
But it’s now been 4 months since our 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue expired, giving the Trump administration more than enough time to comply with the law, which it has not done. Since the irrigation season begins in April and runs through September — and the Bureau has ignored repeated requests from the Fish and Wildlife Service to consult with them on how to stop killing bull trout – we’re forced to go to court immediately or face another irrigation season killing hundreds more bull trout.
The deleterious effects on native fish are so great that the irrigation project has been identified as the primary threat to bull trout in the Saint Mary Recovery Unit. Simply put, this irrigation project takes the cold, clean and abundant water coming out of Glacier National Park and diverts it into shallow, sun-warmed irrigation ditches. But bull trout require cold, clean, and connected water, which is not found in irrigation ditches from which there is no escape. If we’re ever going to recover bull trout and remove them from the Endangered Species List, we have to take steps to stop preventable fatalities such as being stranded and killed in irrigation ditches.
The Trump administration has been spreading misinformation that the only remedy to comply with the law is to completely shut down this irrigation system, which serves people across the Hi-Line of northern Montana. But this is completely untrue. In our request for remedy we asked the federal district court to order the Bureau of Reclamation to immediately install temporary fish screens, which let the water through but keep bull trout out of the irrigation canals. We did not ask the court to shut down the irrigation project.
These simple and effective fish screens at the point of diversion are widely used across the West, so there’s no reason other than the Trump administration’s anti-environmental policies to refuse to install the fish screens and save hundreds of threatened bull trout annually.
It’s well known that the Trump administration has a horrific record on endangered species, which is why we’re holding their feet to the fire in court. After 22 years on the Endangered Species List it’s long past time to stop needlessly killing bull trout and start working toward their recovery. Given that our planet is getting hotter every year — which makes it even more difficult for bull trout to survive – Trump’s administration doesn’t need to make their survival even harder by allowing hundreds of bull trout to needlessly die annually in warm irrigation ditches. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies would greatly appreciate your support as we take the government to court to save Montana’s iconic native bull trout.