The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a new plan for bringing back the declining bull trout in Oregon, Washington and three other Western states. But conservationists say it won't actually restore the fish's population to a healthy level.
Bull trout are predators native to streams across the Northwest. In some places, bull trout were purposely over-fished to keep them from eating precious salmon.
Bull trout need cold, clean water and the ability to move around within their habitat. So, officials say erosion, the removal of trees and vegetation that keep streams cool, and barriers to fish passage such as culverts and dams have all contributed to their decline. And climate change poses an additional threat.
By the time the species was declared a threatened species in 1999, officials estimated bull trout had been wiped out in about 60 percent of their historical range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now wants to rebuild the species and remove it from the list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The plan includes improving water quality and stream habitat and removing barriers to fish passage across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Nevada.
"In each place it might be a little different," said Rollie White, deputy state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon. "You might need to focus more on water quality in one area and passage in another. The plan allows for identifying what needs to happen in this exact basin and this exact watershed so we can get the bull trout back to being secure."
But Mike Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies sees serious flaws in the new recovery plan. His group has sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service multiple times — first to get bull trout on the endangered species list and then to spur the agency to finalize a recovery plan.
"I think it's an extinction plan, not a recovery plan," Garrity said. He says the new plan removes population goals for the fish and allows some bull trout populations to go extinct.
"It removes all population standards to measure how bull trout are doing," he said. "It lowers the bar, so they can delist the bull trout without recovering them."
White says his agency removed the population goals from the new recovery plan because it's too hard to get an accurate count of the fish and because the agency would rather spend its time and money on recovery actions.
"It would be nice if we had enough data to be able to say with confidence that when the fish is ready to come off the list this is how many fish there will be," he said. "But I think we've learned over time it's really hard to count things you can't see, and bull trout in particular are really good at hiding out in complex habitats."
He said the recovery plan acknowledges that not every bull trout population needs to be restored in order to recover the species.
"There are some small populations that may be isolated where our ability to influence the threats is so low or the cost is so high that we're better off securing other populations in other parts of the range, and letting the small populations fare as well as they can," he said. "Potentially, we would lose some of those populations."