They sat at the top of the aquatic food chain for generations, gobbling smaller fish, baby birds, mice, snakes and anything else that had the misfortune of crossing their path. Hidden behind logjams and boulders they still come, though more infrequently, striking at dancing spoons, flies patterned after mice and minnows and the occasional float-on-top patterns meant to draw the attention of trout the world over.
The bull trout were grizzlies of the water. They were the salmon of North America's inland lakes and streams.
Threatened for ages by the native people, bears and eagles, bull trout met their match with the onset of the European diaspora. As the American West opened to white explorers, the bulls faced the introduction of exotic game fish, including lake, rainbow, brook and brown trout, as well as logging and other forms of habitat disruption including dams, ranching and farms, which silted the rivers.
Still, when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt came to Western Montana for a press conference on the banks of legendary Blackfoot River, some were surprised-and others angered and disappointed-that the feds has decided to step in and add the bull trout to the list of endangered species protected under the law.
Those familiar with the law know that the ruling will effect human conduct throughout the West for generations to come. All impacts on waterways west of the Continental Divide will be measured for their injurious impacts on bull trout until the Columbia basin population, spreading from Washington and Oregon to the crest of the Rockies, is deemed sufficiently stable to guarantee the long-term viability throughout the region. The Klammath River basin in southwestern Oregon holds the only other endangered population of bull trout so far.
The states of Montana and Idaho, largely in an attempt to circumvent the federal regulatory controls that accompany the ESA, had already been working on saving the bulls for several years-in some cases successfully. For these interests, the listing of the trout came like a torpedo out of a deep political pool.
They could have guessed that the listing was on its way, given the legal machinations performed by various environmental groups, including the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Last summer, following a series of court actions, U.S. Fish and Wildlife acknowledged that bull trout throughout the Columbia Basin were "warranted, but precluded" for listing under the ESA.
But like anglers on a sunny stream, some members of Gov. Marc Racicot's Bull Trout Restoration Task Force seemed distracted by the dimpled progress they were making, and lost sight of the larger political and ecological impact the listing would have. The governor's minions were noticeably absent from Babbitt's riverside speech, and in recent conversations a number of agents for the state have said that they're not always comfortable with the federal approach to land management.
"There's a lot that's been happening from the ground up," says Ken McDonald, the state's bull trout recovery coordinator. "And this ESA stuff doesn't help that."
The state hopes, in fact, that it will have a program for bull trout restoration out for public comment within the next month-whereas the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department has three years to pull together a plan. Nobody knows how many fish there ever were, nor how many exactly are left. But it's clear that in Montana's recovery zones, which are divided between the Clark Fork, the Swan Valley, the Flathead and Kootenai watersheds, the number of fish have been dropping through the past century.
Between the four recovery zones, a dozen streams have been designated prime habitat, and already hold some bull trout. The state plan calls for five drainages, spread over the four watershed zones, to have five connected core areas with 50 redds apiece-totaling 1250 nests spread throughout the western portion of the state. Plus, the state has added a provision which says all other nests must be maintained. The catch is that there is no time line.
The task force has partners from a variety of state and federal agencies, as well as Plum Creek, Bonneville Power, the American Society of Fisheries and the National Wildlife Federation, and McDonald says he anticipates that it will go ahead with restoration efforts as planned. He also hopes the state's plan can be "rolled into" the federal plan.
"The listing adds a whole process to everything, and some of that's good and some is bad," McDonald says. "Our hope was that the state could maintain a leadership role, but the ESA brings up a lot of regulatory matters."
Of particular concern for landowners are regulations concerning the "taking," which refers to the harming, transporting or killing of a designated endangered species or its habitat. This could prevent grazing on given hillsides, logging on others-and, according to almost everyone quoted in this article, raises the hurdle for the proposed McDonald Gold Project at the headwaters of the Blackfoot River as well.
Kemper McMaster is the Montana field supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He says the agency is still a while off from deciding what to do about bull trout recovery. Among other things, he points out, it remains up in the air whether the feds will approach restoration projects state-by-state or take a regionwide view. McMaster does note, though, that his bosses are well aware that most of the best research on bull trout has already been done on the state level.
Nonetheless, when McMaster offers that "everything a Homo sapiens does" can have adverse effects on bull trout habitat, it's easy to see why the industry-friendly regime of Racicot has had a tepid response to Babbitt's announcement. Logging, ranching, road-building, dam reauthorization and even angling are going to come under scrutiny according to Section 7 of the ESA; although, in the case of fishing, the feds have deferred to state fishing regulations concerning which streams will remain open.
Jack Tuholske, the attorney who carried the environmental lawsuit to court, which brought about the listing, says that he expects the federal government will have its hands full with recovering the endangered bulls. The four C's of their habitat requirements-cold, clean, complex and connected-mean that land managers will be faced with the challenge of not just maintaining water quality on Montana's rivers, but in some places improving it.
"Under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat is a key component," Tuholske says. "And bull trout, in particular, require linkage."
Tuholske's point underlines why the bull trout listing was not only a big deal for his clients, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Wild Swan, but for those working diligently to figure out a system which could preserve this fish so common to waterways throughout Montana that one old timer described "stacking them up like cordwood."
Anecdotal evidence, which is the only record of the number of fish scientists have today, indicates that the bulls lived in myriad streams across the landscape. Being super predators, bull trout-an extremely close relative of the better known Dolly Varden-had an evolutionary advantage which secured this fierce creature its top spot. And the fact that the bull trout, like salmon, travel up tributaries to spawn, meant and means that they don't simply occupy one river stem, but often use tributaries throughout a given drainage.
Calling the listing no less than revolutionary in its requirements for a new land-management paradigm, Kemper McMaster suggests that the best goal for bull trout, as well as the endangered salmon and other threatened species which share its waterways, is to recreate naturally occurring aquatic systems.
"All those species lived in the Columbia basin at one time," McMaster says. "If we can mimic the natural hydraulic system that existed then, we've got a good chance of bringing them all back."
Don Peters of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, has an amiable air and open manner about him. Despite the fact that his phone rings off the hook, he ignores it, intent rather on explaining how exactly the Blackfoot River has come to be such a model stream. His agency estimates there has been as much as a 57 percent increase in bull trout on the stream made famous by the joint efforts of Norman Maclean and Robert Redford.
Peters took over the post of regional fisheries chief for Western Montana this spring on the heels of Dennis Workman, and he's been deeply involved in crafting a plan for the Blackfoot. It's the sort of bottom-up effort which his colleague Ken McDonald in Helena endorses, empowered by local land-owners big and small, who would rather rescue the Blackfoot themselves than have the heavy regulatory hand of the federal government come slamming down.
It was no accident that Secretary Babbitt slipped on waders and floated a dry fly down the current of this particular river. There are other places, like the region around Flathead Lake, which contrast starkly with the Blackfoot, one of the premiere restoration projects.
The other recovery zones, which have been broken up due to dams and obstacles to bull trout migration, include Rock Creek; the Clark Fork from Thompson Falls to Milltown, above the Milltown Dam and below Thompson Falls to the Idaho border; the Swan River-another strong recovery zone-the Kootenai, which has been split into three parts; the main forks of the Flathead River, which include the lake, and the South Fork; as well as the Bitterroot.
Peters knows his Blackfoot well, though, and can tell you where most of the restoration projects are happening, and who's behind them. On Plum Creek Timber Company land, near Gold Creek, he describes a jumble of old-growth debris and boulders which withstood a flood event last year-and Peters is probably one of the few people who takes an optimistic view of this spring's nearly catastrophic landslide near River Bend, which he says saved the agency a lot of money they might have spent otherwise constructing new, wood-laden channels.
Historically, Peters says, "the removal of woody debris, or old growth, from stream beds diminished the available habitat. Where there was lots of wood, there's lots of bull trout.
"By putting some of that back in the stream channels, we create a diversity of pools and grades of gravel, which provide spawning grounds, places to rest when they travel and places to hide."
Peters says he's not sweating the listing of the bull trout under the ESA, because he figures he's already got a jump on what the appropriate action will be. Ken McDonald backs this move, stating plainly that "these on-the-ground activities should really be valuable.
"They're good projects for the overall aquatic systems."
Peters adds that there's a lot of work that still needs to be done-and a lot of issues yet to be understood given the variable impacts that logging, mining and agriculture have had on the Blackfoot corridor, specifically, and Western Montana waters, in general. He expects the state's plan will reflect not just the successes on the part of his agency but also some of the shortcomings.
"We're just collecting our thoughts right now, figuring out everything that's been done," he says. "The plan should show areas we aren't addressing and can't be addressing, such as forest practices and mining. These are the kinds of things that are going to sit on the edges of this plan."
Fortunately for Peters, the listing of the bull trout has had the attention of the largest private land owner in Western Montana since 1992. Plum Creek, which owns nearly 150,000 acres of land in Montana alone has been trying to mitigate at least some of the damage it's done over time. And Peters notes, the company has donated plenty of wood for his stream restoration projects.
According to Plum Creek spokeswoman Kris Backes, her bosses thought it would be better not to wait for the listing to come down, but to take a pro-active stance. Given that Plum Creek has spent more than a decade trying to live down its reputation as an "environmental Darth Vader," it makes sense that the timber giant relies on its self-proclaimed title as "Leaders in Environmental Forestry."
Backes notes that Plum Creek has been engaged with the feds in developing conservation plans throughout the Columbia basin, and has brought most of its roads up to contemporary standards.
Cooperation such as that seen on the Blackfoot contrasts starkly with the woe-begotten attempts to make sense of the bull trout issue on Flathead Lake. Those efforts have been hampered because of political alliances, economic conflicts of interest and a long list of players, which includes-but is not limited to-the state, the feds and the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes.
Behind closed doors, environmentalists whisper that Flathead Lake is a dead zone. The competition between lake trout and bull trout, and possibly the predation of lake trout on the bulls, has grown increasingly since the Kokanee salmon population crashed during the past decade. The food-chain, goes the prevailing logic, is totally out of whack.
In particular, McDonald points to plankton-eating shrimp which have out-competed the salmon for a needed food supply, which in turn has left the ravenous lake trout with nothing on their plates but baby bulls. "I like to tell people to imagine a first-grader diagram, where if you remove one element, what happens?" McDonald says. "It's a complicated system."
The restoration coordinator adds that the issue of preserving bull trout in the lake is being compounded by anglers who are worried there aren't enough lake trout as it stands, and by concerns about the Hungry Horse and other dams which have eliminated classic bull spawning streams.
Chris Frissell, a University of Montana researcher with the Flathead Lake Biological Station, says that he's not even sure what the current population levels are. Despite all the information that's been gathered about the decreased numbers of fish, he says, there are indications that perhaps the devastation of the bull trout has tabled. Frissell notes that underneath the water, the interactions between fish species are not entirely understood.
Even so, he adds, potential recovery plans-ranging from an elaborate netting system to encouraging an over-harvest of lake trout-would have untold outcomes. Poisoning can't be used, because it can't be isolated, and the slow maturation of the bulls means that any feedback information loop that's developed would take at least a couple of years to be of any use.
Barry Hanson, a fisheries biologist with the Flathead tribes, calls the "problem with bull trout on Flathead Lake, a fish community issue." He says he hopes to identify some sort of solution, in conjunction with the state and federal agencies, by next spring. He also acknowledges that tremendous questions exist and will linger long after a plan of action is determined.
Hanson says that he's not sure that the elimination of exotic species would lead to an increase in bull trout, but that the elders and scientists in the tribe all agree that maintaining the health of this native species is important. He says that if the public comes to support the bull trout as they supported the failed efforts to buoy the Kokanee population-"They dumped millions of fish, and spent millions of dollars," he says-the bulls might have a chance.
No matter what happens, he says, "it's definitely going to be several years out before the documentation of change. If people are looking for results tomorrow that's certainly not going to happen."
Photos by Lise Thompson.
Anglers who make their money on lake trout worry that efforts to save the bull trout could harm the economy on Flathead Lake.
Don Peters, regional fisheries manager for the state, says that the work being done in the Blackfoot drainage provides a model for habitat recovery.
Workers this week craft a new channel for Bear Creek, a tributary of the Blackfoot with a population of resident, adolescent bull trout. Don Peters of Fish, Wildife and Parks says that 30 years ago, the stream was moved for agricultural purposes.