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Montana Seeks Federal Conservation Agreements In Face Of Bull Trout Listing


Fri Oct 17 00:00:00 MDT 1997

In response to a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list bull trout under the Endangered Species Act, the State of Montana wants to develop Conservation Agreements with federal authorities to maintain local control and make it unnecessary to list the native fish. In comments delivered to the federal government today, the state also maintains that Montana's bull trout populations are separate and distinct from other populations in the Pacific Northwest.

In a 10-page letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Patrick Graham and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Bud Clinch said there can be little question that bull trout in Montana's Clark Fork and Kootenai river basins constitute separate and distinct populations. The USFWS announced in June that the Pacific Northwest's Klamath River bull trout population would likely be listed as endangered and the Columbia River population would likely be listed as threatened. Montana's bull trout are considered a part of the Columbia River population.

"Montana's Clark Fork and Kootenai river bull trout populations have been physically separated from the rest of the Columbia River for at least 10,000 years," Graham said. "Montana has some of the nation's strongest bull trout populations, and while there remain threats to the species in Montana, the state, several Indian tribes, and others are aggressively involved in the conservation and restoration of bull trout and bull trout habitat to address past and present practices that have contributed to their declines." Graham added that so far four local watershed groups have formed to address the problem in specific drainages.

In their letter to the USFWS, the two directors stated that Montana wants to develop local, watershed-based Conservation Agreements acceptable to the USFWS for both the Clark Fork and Kootenai population segments. According to Graham, the proposed conservation strategy would identify specific actions that would be implemented in each of the populations to protect, mitigate, and monitor bull trout.

If the Conservation Agreement is not signed, or at least nearly completed, at the time of listing, the Service could continue with the listing process, Graham said.

Graham said Montana wants to develop a Conservation Agreement for bull trout similar to the one the State of Utah developed for the virgin spinedace, a threatened minnow.

In their letter, the directors went on to say that, "It is the position of the State of Montana that such a Conservation Agreement would result in a win/win situation for all parties involved, and particularly for the long-term viability of the bull trout. It would result in the State retaining management authority for bull trout, in protection and recovery for the bull trout, continued implementation of cooperative habitat restoration efforts, and a commitment of funds and resources to implement restoration. Basically, it would result in affected parties working together for the good of the bull trout rather than working against one another, fighting Endangered Species Act regulatory requirements."

Bull trout, formerly called Dolly Varden, are Montana's largest native trout and were once common throughout the upper Clark Fork and Flathead drainages. While the bull trout is known to exist in several western states, northwestern Montana remains an important stronghold. Graham said Montana bull trout populations in the South Fork of the Flathead River above Hungry Horse Reservoir, and in Swan River/Swan Lake are healthy and at recovery levels.

Montana's cooperative bull trout restoration program began with Governor Marc Racicot's 1993 Bull Trout Roundtable. At that time, the governor asked the Restoration Team to prepare a recovery plan for bull trout in Montana. Since then, bull trout status reports have been prepared by the Bull Trout Scientific Group--a team of interagency, private, and university fisheries experts. The status reports provide information about bull trout populations, habitat needs, and threats to the fish's survival. Status reports have been prepared for bull trout populations for specific waters throughout western Montana.

Graham said he hopes Montana's forthcoming restoration plan will become a model for any federally sanctioned bull trout recovery strategy.