One of the authors of a new plan to save the threatened bull Trout in Montana says that’s not an easy task, nor is measuring what it will take to get the fish off of the endangered species list.
"Some folks think it’s a simple, you cross the finish line and you’re there. That’s never quite the way it is."
Wade Fredenberg is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bull Trout Coordinator, based at the Creston fish hatchery. He’s been working on helping the fish survive for 23 years now, and can remember growing up in the Flathead Valley, when it was common to catch bull trout.
In 1998 the species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 2002 the Fish and Wildlife Service started working on plans to recover the fish to the point it could be taken off of the endangered species list. But, Fredenberg says, bull trout face a lot of threats.
"It’s pretty clear that some of the things that were the most threatening decades ago, such as some of the logging practices, and in some cases some of the water management, land management activities have improved dramatically. But my fear is that a lot of that has been offset by some really negative consequences associated with non-native fish expansion.
"We're seeing brown trout increasing remarkably throughout the upper Clark Fork system, we've got major lake trout expansion here in the Flathead, and we've always had brook trout issues. So we're starting to see, you know, encroachment by some of the warm-water species such as smallmouth bass and northern pike and walleye now. So it's really a complex mosaic, and it's hard to say things are better or things are worse. In the big picture I think it’s kind of a flat line."
So, what’s the Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan for recovering the bull trout? Fredenberg says it’s not as simple as coming up with a target number of fish in any particular watershed.
Yesterday in an interview with MTPR, Arlene Montgomery with the green group Friends of the Wild Swan criticized the plan for not having clear benchmarks for recovery, like population targets. Fredenberg says it’s very difficult to accurately count bull trout, and that the recovery plan takes a different approach.
"We don’t talk in these latest plans about recovery criteria. What we’re talking about is, at a core-area level; for Flathead Lake, for Swan Lake, for the lower Clark Fork, for the Blackfoot River; these are what we refer to as our core-areas. What are the primary threats, and what kinds of actions are we taking to address those threats?"
Fredenberg says there are already lots of existing plans for addressing threats to bull trout, inside documents and permits issued by the state, the U.S. Forest Service, federal hydroelectric permitting agencies and Indian tribes. He says rather than try to re-invent those wheels, the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to come up with a reference document to get everybody whose actions impact lakes and rivers where there are bull trout to row in the same direction.
"I think some of the public may not understand that recovery plans are not regulatory documents. They don’t come with funding, and they don’t say, ‘you can’t to this,’ or ‘you can do that.’"
But the Fish and Wildlife Service can have a lot of say over whether specific actions like logging projects, dams and road building can get permits from other agencies. And the agency is tasked with ruling when species have recovered to the level that they can be removed from the endangered species list.
Fredenberg says the specifics of what conditions will have to be met for the agency to declare bull trout recovered and eligible for removal from the list is not in the plan, because it’s still being worked on.
"That process is, I would honestly say, still being built. There’s a threat assessment tool that is identified. But that tool still needs a lot of work, and we still expect to get a lot of input from the state, the tribes, and other partners as to how to apply that tool."
Whatever the specifics of the threat assessment tool end up being, Fredenberg says it will ultimately be up to a panel of wildlife managers to apply the best available science in determining if and when bull trout are recovered to the point they no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act. He says that may involve some tough decisions about whether marginal bull trout habitat should be maintained, and at what expense.
A public comment period on the new recovery plan for bull trout is open until July 20th. The agency’s goal is to make the plan final by the end of September.