For an apex predator that can grow up to 20 pounds or more, range over hundreds of miles and has been called the river wolf, the bull trout has had a tough time of it.
First, there's the name. The trout-looking fish with bright orange spots and a brown torpedo-like body is really no trout at all - it's actually part of the char family.
Once widespread across the Rockies and Northwest, the bull trout has been reduced to a fraction of its historic population and range, surviving in a few strongholds, like the Metolius River where the combination of clear, cold spring-fed flows and minimal human impacts allow the fish to thrive. But these types of refuges have become few and father between as human development and related impacts encroach on the few remaining corners of the West, a challenge for bull trout who are particularly sensitive to water quality and temperatures. The bull trout's need for pristine habitat has earned it the reputation of an indicator species, the proverbial canary in the coal mine, as Sierra Club conservation director and fishing guide Jeff Hickman puts it.
Listed as an endangered species in 1998, the bull trout has been the subject of a prolonged tug of war between conservation groups, the federal government and the timber and agricultural community that has fought against federal proposals for wide-ranging habitat conservation. Locally, the latest go-round with bull trout culminated in a recently released federal habitat proposal that has prompted many of the conservation groups to ponder just how hard to push on federal regulators, particularly in the upper Deschutes basin where irrigators like Madras-based North Unit and Redmond's Central Oregon Irrigation District hold most of the cards and are seen as key partners in long-term recovery, not just for bull trout, but other native fish species including red band trout. It's an interesting risk-reward situation that underscores the dilemma facing the modern environmental movement, where groups are forced to balance old-fashioned and often antagonistic advocacy that can result in sweeping legislative and legal victories versus collaboration with their traditional adversaries, a process that's less acrimonious but often slower moving and, depending who you ask, not always as effective.
At stake is not just the future of one species of fish above Bend, but the entire upper river, which was once one of the premier fisheries in the country. Advocates say if it were to be restored, it could be a major draw for tourists and an engine of economic development, just as other popular rivers are in Montana, Idaho and other areas of the West.
Even so, conservation groups have wrestled with the idea of using the bull trout as a spotted owl of sorts in the upper Deschutes.
Trout Unlimited (TU), for example, is a relatively new arrival in the basin, but an increasingly important player with a broad-based membership and deep pockets. TU targeted Central Oregon as a hot spot for fish conservation issues several years ago. It reinvigorated the local chapter that now boasts over 400 members. Last year the organization added the Upper Deschutes Basin to the organization's Home Waters initiative, a program designed to steer money and resources into areas of high-resource value that face environmental threats, and hired a full-time staff member to oversee the program.
Known for taking tough stands on fish-related conservations issues, TU jumped into the Deschutes basin with an eye toward politics and advocacy on behalf of anglers and fish. But the organization's leadership in Oregon wrestled with how best to handle the bull trout issue, according to several sources within TU.
In the end, the organization opted to support the plan as submitted while encouraging the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider the upper Deschutes, a position that was less aggressive than some would have liked, said Tom Wolf, TU's Oregon Council chair.
With a reputation as "river wolf" bull trout can grow up to 20+ lbs
and are aggressive feeders, sometimes targeting other adult fish as
was the case with this fish.
"We try to speak as one voice in the chapter, the Oregon Council and the national organization. So we have had long internal discussions and we agreed after those lengthy discussions that, even though we had some members who wanted to support bull trout critical habitat [in the upper Deschutes], we chose not to pursue it," said Wolf.
Wolf counted himself among those who wanted to see TU take a tougher stand on the upper Deschutes by pushing for its inclusion in the habitat map. However, he said he was ultimately swayed by the arguments of those in the local chapter against it. The main argument put forth by those closest to the issue - including TU's field representative in Bend, Darek Staab - was that pushing too hard for a designation could alienate TU and its fledgling Home Waters initiative from other stakeholders in the basin, particularly the powerful irrigation districts that control most of the water rights in the basin.
"It's tough. You go out and build relationships and you don't want to ruin those relationships," Wolf said. "What we're hoping is that down the road we can work to protect the upper Deschutes habitat in other ways, rather than have it designated in federal law. We definitely haven't given up on trying to protect and restore it."
Not everyone in the conservation community agrees with that approach. Some like Water Watch, the Sierra Club, the Federation of Fly Fishers and Native Fish Society are pushing hard on the Fish and Wildlife Service to incorporate the upper river into its plan. While it's seen by some as a bit of a long shot, given that bull trout are believed to be completely extinct above Bend, they do have one wild card in their deck - the federal government's own science. In 2002, The Fish and Wildlife Service identified the upper Deschutes as containing several hundred miles of essential habitat, but that reach is entirely omitted from the current plan, which is open to public comment through April. Instead the plan focuses on the Metolius and the lower Deschutes with a few isolated stretches above Lake Billy Chinook, including the middle Deschutes to Big Falls and the Crooked River to Highway 97.
The department now maintains that it is impossible to evaluate the bull trout habitat in the upper Deschutes given that there are no fish there. Instead, the agency has proposed a feasibility study for the area to determine if it's still suitable for bull trout.
At this point, it's not entirely clear why the Fish and Wildlife Service backed away from its original plan to include the upper Deschutes. But it's likely that a mix of politics and pragmatism are at work, according to multiple sources that have been involved with restoration and endangered species issues in the region.
The original 2002 critical habitat proposal, which covered roughly four states, including Oregon, comprised thousands of miles of rivers and streams and drew heavy criticism from groups representing farmers and the timber industry who were wary of the economic impact on their operations. Locally, farmers and irrigators were particularly critical of including the upper Deschutes where their operations heavily impact stream flows that are ramped up in summer to feed irrigation diversions or held back in the winter to fill reservoirs.
While it's not entirely clear what impact a critical habitat designation would mean, it would likely have included some reintroduction effort. With those fish would come additional scrutiny of irrigation operations in an area where providing irrigation water for farmers has been the top priority for more than a century.
In some ways, the prolonged fight over bull trout is a microcosm of the problems surrounding the 30-year-old Endangered Species Act, which was designed to provide a safety net for disappearing fish, plants and wildlife, but has become a prisoner of bureaucratic processes, politics and special interests - not to mention a thorn in the side of industry. In other words, it's the federal government at its best and worst.
Right now there are over 250 species, including another Central Oregon denizen, the sage grouse, waiting to be included on the endangered species list. The Department of the Interior, however, says a backlog of work and a lack of manpower precludes Fish and Wildlife from including them, despite the fact that they have been found to warrant the Endangered Species Act's (ESA) protections.
In the case of bull trout, it took a federal lawsuit to force the federal government's hand. That decision should have been followed by a critical habitat designation that would have outlined the geographic areas required for bull trout to recover some of their historic range.
But 12 years later the agency is still trying to develop a map that will satisfy stakeholders and stand up to legal scrutiny. While the agency developed and adopted a map in 2005, it was forced to withdraw that map in order to settle a court challenge brought by environmental groups that claimed that the map, which was developed under the Bush administration, was a product of politics rather than science. That charge was underscored shortly after the suit was filed when it was revealed that Julie MacDonald, one of the top Bush appointees in the Fish and Wildlife Service, had altered her own scientists' reports in an effort to scale back ESA protections for more than a dozen species.
MacDonald was ultimately forced to resign. After an inspector general's report revealed widespread tampering by MacDonald, the agency reopened nearly two dozen species reviews that had been conducted under MacDonald, including the bull trout listing. While the agency said it found no evidence of tampering, the Bush administrations' appointees oversaw a major downscaling of the proposed protections for bull trout between 2002 and 2005. The final designation contained less than a quarter of the critical habitat originally identified by the agency's own biologists.
While critical habitat applies to federal lands and federally regulated projects, it offers a much greater level of protection for species, and consequently a greater degree of regulation. Forest Service timber contracts, for example, would come under increased scrutiny in areas with designated critical habitat. Instead of showing that a logging operation would have no impact on a particular population of endangered fish, the government would be forced to show that it would have no impact on the habitat - a much broader protection for fish and a much more restrictive environment for industry.
"It's really hard to show that one project would cause the extinction of a species, but with critical habitat you can't do anything to modify that habitat, so it's a much better protection that we believe will lead to the recovery and get them off the endangered species list, which would make everybody happy," said Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a Montana-based conservation group that initially petitioned to have the bull trout listed as an endangered species and sued the government over its 2005 plan.
But if the protections for endangered species are extremely broad under the critical habitat, the rule itself is extremely subjective. For example, the law allows the federal government to designate areas that are currently "unoccupied," like the upper Deschutes, but it does not require it - even if it's part of the species' historic range. Instead the agency is required to include all habitat that is essential to the species' recovery. But just how to determine what is, or is not, essential is largely a matter of opinion.
Not everyone is convinced that the habitat is viable, let alone essential.
"As far as the upper Deschutes, while historically bull trout have utilized that habitat, they've been extirpated for many, many years due to a number of factors and the majority of those factors still exist currently. There's minimal habitat available that's suitable for bull trout," said Brett Hodgson, the Deschutes Basin fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
His agency supports the federal government's proposal to keep the upper Deschutes off the habitat map while embarking on a feasibility study for the area. At the same time, he acknowledges that the current conditions on the upper Deschutes are far from ideal. Critical winter water flows are just a fraction of the roughly 300 cubic feet per second minimum established by the state, often dipping as low as 30 cubic feet per second - closer to the flow of Tumalo Creek than a major Western river. Still, Hodgson said he's optimistic about some of the incremental steps that have been taken on a collaborative basis on the upper Deschutes.
That's somewhat disappointing news for organizations like the Native Fish Society that strongly supports an immediate critical habitat designation. Without the support of the state or the federal government they know that they've got an uphill battle on the Deschutes above Bend. But it's a fight that advocates say is worth taking on, even at the risk of alienating some of the other stakeholders.
At this point, the irrigators and their federal benefactor, the Bureau of Reclamation, have little incentive to make wholesale changes in the upper basin, said Tom Davis, a retired engineer who has extensively researched the upper Deschutes issues on behalf of Native Fish Society and a number of other organizations. He's convinced that only a powerful tool like critical habitat will bring all the interests to the table for the betterment of the resource and bull trout.
"Working with landowners to restore some riparian areas or pick up trash, that's nice, but you need a major push to get a series of [federal] projects going... You need to get moving to start to put the pieces together and critical habitat is a big piece," Davis said.