Bull Trout

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposes new-and-improved critical habitat designation for bull trout.

On January 13, 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a new critical habitat designation for bull trout, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, throughout the Northwest, including western Montana. The new draft — offering four-to-six times more protected waters than a previous proposal in 2005 —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 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. A good critical habitat designation also provides extra regulatory protection that may require special management considerations. These watersheds will also be prioritized for restoration, which will benefit all aquatic species.

Within the Clark Fork River Basin in western Montana, some tributaries proposed for designation in the 2005 proposal have been deleted and some small sections added. While we appreciate the agency’s diligence in using new data to inform these changes, there are four very important tributaries within the Clark Fork River watershed that we have asked to added to the final designation.

  1. Important tributaries of Fish Creek in the Middle Clark Fork River, including spawning and rearing habitat, previously proposed for designation, are absent from this 2010 proposal. These are Cache Creek, Montana Creek, White Creek, Surveyor Creek, and Straight Creek in the Great Burn proposed wilderness (http://www.sierraclub.org/sierrasportsmen/greatburn/)
  2. A major section of the Upper Clark Fork River upstream from Flint Creek has been removed, isolating three known bull trout populations.
  3. Upper Willow Creek, a major tributary of Rock Creek, which feeds the Upper Clark Fork River, has been removed from former designated critical habitat proposals.
  4. The section of the Clearwater River downstream from Salmon Lake to the confluence with the Blackfoot River has been removed, isolating the Clearwater River-Chain of Lakes system from the rest of the Clark Fork Basin.

The USFWS comment period ended March 15, 2010. The Sierra Club has submitted detailed comments to the agency and we now await a final designation due September 30, 2010.

For more information contact Hunter-Angler Program staffer, Bob Clark in the Missoula field office.

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