Before there were many people in the northwestern United States, bull trout were abundant, migrating throughout the rivers, creeks, lakes and streams that make up the Columbia drainage and the Klamath River system.
The largest of the northwest's wild trout species, bull trout also have the most stringent habitat requirements, thriving in what Shelley Spalding of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks calls "the four C's": clean, cold, complex and connected habitat. While that description once applied to almost every inch of the region's waterways, increasing human activity has changed things. Logging and grazing practices have dirtied the waters with eroded sediments and rising water temperatures; dams now prevent migratory bull trout from reaching their upstream spawning grounds.
In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule to list the bull trout, under the Endangered Species Act, as threatened in the Columbia River basin. It was a decision that sent ripples throughout the environmental and regulated communities -- waves that have the potential to turn into a full-on tsunami for those who make their livings off the land.
Human activity during the 20th century has regulated bull trout to a precarious existence in a few relatively pristine headwaters streams, and threatened their survival as a species, according to the FWS. Because of their need for pristine waters, bull trout are known as an "indicator species" -- the proverbial canary in the coal mine whose decline would sound the alarm about the integrity of the Northwest's watersheds.
While there are no good bull trout population estimates -- either historical or current -- many people seem to have heard that alarm, and conservation organizations and state and federal agencies have begun developing plans to preserve and recover bull trout populations. Just as bull trout are an indicator of watershed health, the result of the debate over how to recover this species may foretell the future of a great many projects, and could be a portent of how decisions about land-management policies will be made in Montana, the Northwest and elsewhere.
"It used to be, back when I was a young man, the bull trout were considered to be injurious, since they ate other trout," says George Weisel, a retired ichthyologist who grew up in Western Montana and worked for the University of Montana for 40 years. "I had a friend who used to go into the Bob Marshall and catch bull trout, and then he'd pile them up like cordwood right on the side of the river. He thought he was doing a great benefit to the fish population in the South Fork (of the Flathead River).
"I used to hike back in the Bob Marshall quite a bit. You'd look down into the river, and you'd see these damn things that looked like little submarines, one right after the other, the trout coming up the streams. They were quite numerous then, but of course after they built the dam there on the South Fork, then their numbers began to decrease."
"The Flathead lake and river system population has always been considered the most secure stronghold of bull trout in the whole lower 48," says Mike Bader of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. It was a 1992 petition filed by Bader's group, in conjunction with two other organizations, which led to the court ruling requiring the FWS to protect the bull trout. "Historically there have been around 600 redds (spawning nests in stream bed gravel) there. When we filed our petition it was about 250, and by last fall it was down to 80. That's an extinction curve, is what you've got there."
In response to these sorts of declines throughout the bull trout's range, and to pressure from organizations like Bader's, the governors of Montana and Idaho convened task forces in 1994 to study the question of bull trout recovery. While these recovery teams were established ostensibly to work on recovering the fish, some observers also believe that they were intended to prevent the federal government from invoking federal law and handing down a set of rules dictating restrictive land-use practices.
If the states could show that they were working to recover their bull trout populations, the reasoning goes, the feds might leave the states to their own devices.
Had it not been for haranguing by Bader's Alliance and the Friends of the Wild Swan, things might have worked out that way. The FWS responded to the 1992 petition to list the bull trout with a finding of "Warranted, but precluded," concluding that the trout deserved protection that would nonetheless be denied "due to other higher priority listing actions."
Bader and crew challenged this finding in court and won. Under the pressure of litigation, the FWS changed its tune earlier this year and issued a proposal to list the trout as threatened. The agency now has until June 1998 to either finalize their proposal or come up with another plan.
In the meantime, the governors of Montana and Idaho convened their recovery panels and began meeting. The Montana group, consisting of representatives from groups like Plum Creek Timber, the National Wildlife Federation, the American Fisheries Society and state and federal agencies, stated in its charter that members would "work in a cooperative fashion to produce a plan that maintains, protects, and increases bull trout populations."
Some conservation organizations welcomed the panels as opportunities to find common ground with representatives of "the other side." Others, however, have been wary that their message could be co-opted by industry public relations machines.
"There's a lot of cynicism among a lot of my colleagues, and I share most of it, over these state efforts that are primarily aimed at skirting ESA," says Bruce Farling of Montana's Trout Unlimited. "But we've got to find a way of making those work better. If we just sit back and count on ESA and lawsuits, it takes forever to get stuff done on the ground."
Despite cynicism over the task forces, at least one local conservationist says the two processes benefit from each other. "I think the listing debate has been beneficial to the state process," says Missoula's Tom France, who has represented the National Wildlife Federation on the governor's recovery team. "I think it has served to keep the state focused on the need for species recovery."
The documents that are being developed by the state restoration team, France says, will probably serve as the backbone for the Montana section of the FWS's recovery plan once the final decision to list the trout is made..
France sees the process as a "win-win" situation in that the organizations involved in Montana's Bull Trout Restoration Team will be more invested in cooperating to preserve the bull trout than they would be if the ruling were simply imposed upon them by the federal agency.
At this point, the implications of the final listing are nearly impossible to anticipate, since no recovery plan will be adopted for years.
"We don't know what kind of impacts a listing will have," says Kris Backes, Regional Director of Corporate Affairs for Plum Creek Timber Company. "That will depend a great deal on how the Fish and Wildlife Service chooses to handle it, and what kind of regulations they choose to implement."
While the specific implications of a bull trout listing under the ESA are murky, it's clear to nearly everyone interviewed that such a listing will affect not only timber, mining, and grazing operations in the Northwest, but also dam operations, the treatment of exotic fish species that compete with and/or prey on bull trout, irrigation regimes, and a host of other land-use practices that impact watersheds within bull trout country.
As Bader points out, the FWS's decision will most certainly influence the future of land management in the Northern Rockies, and there's more than fish at stake.
"I think that's what we're getting towards is a management system for the whole region that's both economically and ecologically sustainable and that works with the strengths of the region," says Bader. "The bull trout is probably our best and last opportunity to get back on a track of sustainable management for the people and wildlife of this region. We're not like everywhere else. We soon will be if we don't make some serious changes."