Government officials from all over Montana and the Pacific Northwest were in the Blackfoot Valley Friday to hear Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit announce the listing of the bull trout as a threatened species.
Story & photos
by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
June 11, 1998
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit announced Friday that the bull trout is now listed as a threatened species in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Management of Columbia River basin and Klamath River bull trout populations is now subject to federal rules in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.
Former chief of the Forest Service Jack Ward Thomas, right, makes a point during a conversation with Lolo National Forest Supervisor Chuck Wildes, left, and Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love, center.
The new status of bull trout means that all projects that affect this popular yet vulnerable fish will now be scrutizied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tim Love, District Ranger for the Forest Service at Seeley Lake, said he believes the new listing will impact Forest Service projects locally, even though the agency has been anticipating the announcement.
From now on, biological evaluations will be required on activities that may affect bull trout in their habitat, Love explained. "And all of the habitat in the Seeley Swan is priority for bull trout, " he said.
Bull trout populations have declined throughout the West since the 1970s. Historically, bull trout were found in the Columbia River Basin, western Montana, the Jarbidge River in northern Nevada, the Klamath Basin in Oregon, the McCloud River in California and in Alberta and British Columbia. Today, bull trout have been eliminated from the main stems of most large rivers, and inhabit only 6% of their former range. The main populations remaining in the U.S. are in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, with a small population in northern Nevada. Bull trout are now extinct in northern California.
In western Montana, the taking of bull trout under standard fishing regulations was allowed until 1990, when catch and release rules were implemented. However, by 1997, notable population declines forced fisheries managers to prohibit fishing for bull trout in all Montana waters except Swan Lake south of Bigfork. Since 1994, the state has been developing a bull trout recovery plan. That plan will be finalized this summer.
Land managers and fishermen throughout Montana have been skeptical about listing the fish as a threatened species, fearing federal mandates that might hinder recreation and interfere with successful local recovery efforts.
However, Babbit was quick to point out that the listing will not change recreational fishing for other trout species, such as rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout, in the Blackfoot.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, left, fly fishes in the Clearwater River where it joins the Blackfoot. Paul Roos, right, a Helana river guide, helps Babbitt with some tips.
"Here it means more of the same. The recovery plan for this fish has already been written. It's been written on this watershed by all of you and exactly what you're doing."
Folowing the press conference, Babbit fished briefly in the Clearwater River with Helena guide Paul Roos, who also spoke at Friday's press event. Roos remembers fishing on the Blackfoot River some 40 years ago. "It was something that I could still rave about today," he said. However, by 1970 the river was already in decline, "mostly from neglect," he said. In the 1980s, numerous groups, agencies and individuals banded together to save the river.
"The groups involved got the river turned around," he said.
Because of this success story, Babbit chose to make his announcement at the fishing access site where the Clearwater River joins the Blackfoot next to Sunset Hill Road south of Clearwater Junction.
"The reason I came out here today to make this announcement is because I wanted to find the place, the one place in the West, that I thought told the most powerful story about the possibility for restoration," Babbit said. He told about 75 people gathered at the event that in six years as secretary of the Interior he had not seen anything as inspirational and powerful as what he has seen in the efforts of the people who worked to restore the fishery in the Blackfoot Valley.
"If you want to see a national model of what's possible, you ought to come up here and look, and listen, and learn," he said.
The successful recovery efforts in the Blackfoot Valley are a direct result of cooperation between private landowners, government agencies, and conservationists.
"They all deserve credit," according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks Information Officer Bill Thomas of Missoula. "And it was all done without endangered status," he said, referring to the voluntary, non-regulatory approach used by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Ron Pierce, fisheries biologist with FWP in Missoula, has worked closely with the Blackfoot River fisheries recovery program.
"We are basically doing things smarter," he said, adding that the Blackfoot recovery program has been successful because of a very high level of cooperation between the local ranching community, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners in Wildlife program, state programs, and the involvement of Trout Unlimited and the Blackfoot Challenge, two local conservation groups. "There is a lot of really neat cooperation quietly going on out there that you don't see," Pierce explained.
The bull trout, often called Montana's traveling fish, spawns in tributaries of larger rivers. Intense recovery projects have been accomplished on six tributaries of the Blackfoot River. In Gold Creek, wood was added to the stream channel to provide fish cover and security. In Belmont Creek, Plum Creek land managers implemented a major erosion control program to reduce sediment. In Cottonwood Creek, fish ladders were installed at irrigation ditch diversion sites, and irrigation canals have been screened throughout the valley to keep fish in the main stream channels, "where they belong," Pierce explained. Ranchers have also participated in riparian management projects such as fencing to keep cattle away from critical stream areas. Fishing regulations were changed in response to fish population declines. The whole combination of recovery efforts and projects have led to what Pierce describes as "modest" improvement of bull trout populations.