The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Obama administration last week reversed a piece of Bush-era endangered species policy and opted to extend critical habitat designations for bull trout on some 19,000 miles of streams in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Nevada. It's good news for fishermen, and better news for the fish—but not everyone is celebrating.
The USFWS decision makes any adverse modifications to critical bull trout habitat a violation of federal law. The increased protections will require projects executed on federal land or funded by federal dollars to conduct more in-depth studies on environmental impacts. That could have a direct effect on two separate ongoing proposals: high-and-wide shipments along local rivers and Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the groups that fought for years to increase bull trout protections under the Endangered Species Act, says the decision may factor into ExxonMobil's bid to ship roughly 200 tar sands mining modules up the Clearwater, Lochsa and Blackfoot rivers—a project still under consideration by both the Idaho Transportation Department and the Montana Department of Transportation.
"The state has to take a much closer look now at how this could potentially affect bull trout critical habitat if, for example, one of the big rigs falls in the river," Garrity says. "They have to build turnouts every five minutes. How will that affect critical habitat?"
Before, such projects only had to prove their activities would not cause extinction of bull trout in the Pacific Northwest. But the new bull trout ruling will raise more questions during environmental review processes—and in some cases show that projects are simply too risky to pursue.
The logging mandates contained in Sen. Jon Tester's proposed Forest Jobs and Recreation Act are an example of activity that could also be subject to new endangered species protections. While much of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest lies outside the new critical habitat designations, the Rock Creek drainage does contain a viable bull trout population, as Garrity points out. So does the Kootenai National Forest, which would be similarly impacted by Tester's provision that the U.S. Forest Service log 100,000 acres of forest over the next 15 years.
Tester's office responded to the USFWS ruling by assuring that the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act "will comply with all laws, including the Endangered Species Act."
The new bull trout protections no doubt impact many other projects beyond big rigs and "Big W" wilderness, but it at least generates a new line of debate surrounding two of the area's more contentious environmental issues.