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Feds hope to halt bull trout's downturn.

Byline: SCOTT MABEN The Register-Guard

The federal government on Thursday proposed a recovery plan for scattered populations of bull trout in hopes of reversing its slide toward extinction.

The plan for the region could take 25 years or more and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The proposal also designates habitat that is thought to be critical to the recovery of bull trout in 23 river basins in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. It includes the McKenzie River and Middle Fork of the Willamette River, home to the only surviving populations of bull trout in the Willamette basin.

The draft plan outlines threats to bull trout habitat and how to reverse the decline of the threatened species. It does not, however, pose restrictions on state and private lands or limits to recreation. Recovery plans are advisory only and carry no regulatory authority.

In areas designated as critical habitat, the Fish and Wildlife Service will review and could request modification of activities that are on federal land or involve federal funding or permits. Such consultation is now required on federal lands adjacent to streams inhabited by bull trout, including for timber sales on federal forests.

The bull trout is presumed extinct across more than half of its historic range, including in the Clackamas and Santiam rivers. The strongest population in Western Oregon is in the McKenzie, where the bull trout range spans more than 100 miles of river and tributaries. An isolated population survives above Cougar Dam, but none has been found above Blue River Dam.

The road to recovery will be difficult, but it also will benefit other struggling species, such as salmon and steelhead, said Wendi Weber, chief of endangered species for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific region.

"And our efforts will result in healthier rivers and lakes for everyone," Weber said. "Bull trout are one of the best indicators of water quality. If bull trout like the water, you know it's good."

Habitat for the fish species, which thrives in clean, cold water, has been fragmented by dams and degraded by logging, runoff from roads, water diversions, loss of streamside vegetation and pollution.

"Many of the populations today are small and isolated from each other," Weber said. "This is one of the major threats to the species' survival."

Bull trout, part of the char subgroup of salmon, also were overharvested before fishing restrictions were in place. In addition, it has suffered from competition with non-native fish.

In 1998, bull trout were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the Klamath River Basin and the Columbia River Basin, which drains western Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

A major goal of recovery is to improve stream conditions to reunite populations and help bull trout reclaim former habitat for spawning and foraging.

"If we had favorable habitat conditions up and down the Willamette and its tributaries, this fish would gradually reoccupy its native habitat," said David Bayles, executive director of Pacific Rivers Council, a Eugene-based conservation group.

If bull trout are to be saved from extinction, Bayles said, "we have to protect the habitat that's good and restore the habitat that's degraded. That's the whole story."

The Willamette recovery plan, estimated to cost $26 million over 25 years, lists four criteria for recovery:

The fish is distributed among five or more populations, including four in the upper basin - the McKenzie and Middle Fork of the Willamette - and one in the Clackamas River.

Adult fish are estimated to number 900 to 1,500, including 600 to 1,000 in the upper basin.

Adult fish populations are stable or growing for at least 10 years.

The fish are free to migrate among local populations. This would require fish ladders or other means of passage at Cougar, Trail Bridge, Dexter, Lookout Point and Hills Creek dams.

Compared with those targets, the present condition of Willamette basin bull trout suggests that it's at high risk of extinction, said Bill Bakke, director of the Native Fish Society in Portland. The distribution is too limited, populations are too small and connections between populations are poor, Bakke said.

"We're really starting at the low end of the curve to try to design a recovery plan," he said.

The Middle Fork of the Willamette's population was revived using transplanted McKenzie bull trout above Hills Creek Dam in the mid- 1990s. But transplanting fish from one watershed to another generally is not effective, Bayles said.

"We're not going to recover these fish by moving them around," he said. "We're going to have to recover these fish by preserving locally adapted fish. ... If you lose that local adaptation, you lose the critter."

Recovery also will require changes to logging and agricultural practices as well as dams and water diversions, he said.

"We're the problem and we've got to change if we want to co-exist with native species," Bayles said.

WHAT'S NEXT

Comments: Public comments on the proposed critical habitat and recovery plan for bull trout may be submitted online at species.fws.gov/bull trout/

Meetings: Nine public hearings are scheduled for January, including at the Eugene Hilton on Jan. 14. The hearing will begin at 6 p.m. An information session will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

- The Register-Guard

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Associated Press The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed a draft plan to help increase the populations of bull trout in Northwest river basins.
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Title Annotation:Environment: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service draft plan offers ways to increase numbers of the fish.; Environment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 15, 2002
Words:911
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