Saving the Bull Trout

by Craig J. Knowles and Robert G. Gumtow

The Thoreau Institute
14417 S.E. Laurie
Oak Grove, Oregon 97267
April, 1996

Table of Contents


The bull trout is a native trout species to the Pacific Northwest. Life history strategies includes both migratory and resident fishes. The bull trout is a very habitat specific fish and requires clean, cold water for successful reproduction and survival. The bull trout has been identified as a species in decline but still contains sufficient numbers and distribution that it is not at high risk of extinction.

It is presently listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a Category 1 candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Its status has been twice reviewed by the agency and though found each time to warrant listing, has been precluded from listing because of other higher priority species.

A number of factors have led to the decline of the bull trout and these factors work in concert with each other to varying degrees in each watershed to influence bull trout populations. Factors contributing to the decline of bull trout are related to land management problems, water management problems, and fisheries management problems.

Land management problems include logging, road construction, and grazing which results in sedimentation, loss of woody debris, degraded riparian areas, and changed stream characteristics. Water management problems are a result of dams representing passage barriers and diversion of water for irrigation purposes. Fisheries management problems consist of overharvest, poaching, and introduced salmonid species.

Existing bull trout populations are fragmented and frequently isolated in headwater areas. Montana contains the majority of the extant bull trout populations and is also the recognized leader in bull trout restoration. Steps taken by Montana to restore bull trout include organization of a restoration team, a scientific advisory group, and a public watershed group for each occupied watershed to provide comment on restoration plans. Emergency restoration efforts implemented to date include closure of legal harvest of bull trout in most waters, public education, increased law enforcement, and screening of irrigation diversions.

The U.S. Forest Service has recently developed an Inland Native Fish Strategies document to provide additional habitat protection for the bull trout on national forest lands. In addition to these efforts, most states have limited the harvest of bull trout and efforts to restore salmon in the Columbia River basin are expected to benefit bull trout as well.


A new high-stakes game is being played out in financial centers around the world. Investors, bankers, traders, municipalities, school systems, and Indian reservations are playing the game with something like $14 trillion of other people's money.

The game is called "derivatives" and it is so complex that few really understand it. One missed opportunity or a slight miscalculation can bring an empire crashing down. In late 1994, Orange County Treasurer Robert Citron spun the wheel and lost $1.5 billion, giving the citizens of Orange County up-close experience with bankruptcy.

In early 1995, Nicholas Leeson, a trader in Singapore, single-handedly brought the 232-year-old London investment banking firm of Barings into complete financial failure. After losing $128 million of his company's money, Nippon Steel Chemical's accounting director decided the only way out was beneath the wheels of a train. Other companies ranging from Proctor and Gamble to Metallgesellschaft have lost hundreds of millions to billions of dollars.

Yet as high as these numbers are, there is a much bigger game in town. One that trifles not in the paltry million and billion dollar antes of these financial parlor games, but rather in the currency of survival itself: survival of individual species and, some say, of the human race.

The game of biodiversity is so complex that it makes financial instruments such as derivatives look like children's toys. Yet clear indications of biodiversity loss can be found in the extinction or near-extinction of numerous species of wildlife, including some 1,000 species in the U.S. alone.

One chip laid down in this biological roulette is the bull trout. Having survived millennia of glacial retreat, this habitat-selective fish is facing an onslaught of problems its genetic makeup is ill equipped to deal with. The degree and extent of the bull trout decline did not come to the public attention until 1992 when Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks contracted for the preparation of a status review of the bull trout in Montana (Thomas 1992). This report concluded that bull trout distribution was less than 50 percent of the historic range and that many of the remaining populations were in danger of extinction.

Subsequently, in the fall of 1992, three Montana-based conservation groups petitioned to have the bull trout listed as an endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed this petition and developed its own status report on the bull trout in 1994. The agency ruled that the bull trout warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, but was precluded from listing because there are other species of higher concern that must be dealt with first. The bull trout was then classified as a Category 1 candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

As required by law, the Fish & Wildlife Service reviewed bull trout status again in 1995 and issued another warranted-but-precluded ruling. The act requires the agency to annually review the status of the bull trout until it is either listed as threatened or determined not to be warranted for listing.

Understanding the Game--Bull Trout Life History

Members of the North American salmon family (trout, charr, salmon, whitefish, and grayling) are Arctic and north temperate fishes generally restricted to cold, clear lakes and streams. Members of the salmon family tend to be highly migratory frequently spawning in specific streams and maturing as adults in other bodies of water. Anadromous salmon are a good example of an extreme case of this migratory behavior.

In general, North American salmonids were biologically highly successful species in their appropriate habitats, and during presettlement times they were incredibly abundant and usually the dominant fish species in occupied northern streams and rivers. During the past century under the umbrella of modern fisheries management, the relationship of salmonid fishes--their abundance, distribution, and species composition--has changed radically. Like many of its Pacific Northwest relatives, the bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) is one of the successful salmonid species that is now in decline.

The original range of the bull trout is the Pacific Northwest, including western Canada, southeastern Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana. There is even one isolated population in Nevada. It also occurred in California, but was extirpated by 1975 from the single river in which it occurred (Bond, 1992 and Reiman and McIntyre, 1993). The bull trout is also present in headwater areas east of the Continental Divide in Alberta.

The bull trout closely resembles the Dolly Varden (S. malma), an anadromous trout found in coastal streams. In fact, until 1978 the bull trout was considered the same species as, but an inland form of, the Dolly Varden. The bull trout received its common name because of its large head and mouth, and aggressive predacious habits.

All salmonids have very specific habitat requirements for water temperature and clarity, and the bull trout tends to be more specific than other trout species for cool water temperatures, clear water and appropriate gravel substrate for spawning. It is considered as a habitat specialist because of these specific habitat requirements.

The bull trout probably reached its peak distribution and abundance during and after the most recent glacial period when there was an abundance of clear cold water streams (Bond, 1992). Biologists believe that during this period bull trout were commonly anadromous, thus explaining their occurrence in isolated coastal drainages.

A century ago, bull trout populations were healthy throughout the Northwest. Since then they have been in an ever-accelerating decline. Like most fish and wildlife species at risk, their decline is fueled by increasing habitat reduction, alteration, and loss.

Bull trout divide into two basic population types: resident and migratory. Resident fish spawn, mature and spend their entire life within a single stream. Resident fish are frequently found in the headwaters of major drainages and were formerly only a minor segment of the bull trout population.

Migratory bull trout can be adfluvial, migrating between streams where they spawn and lakes or reservoirs where they spend most of their lives, or they can be fluvial, migrating between larger rivers where they live and the smaller streams in which they spawn (Pratt, 1992). Bull trout are in a small area of coastal Washington are anadromous, spawning in fresh water while living most of their lives in salt water (USFS, unpublished report). Anadromy was once probably more common in the species.

The bull trout is a highly predacious fish, feeding heavily on aquatic insects when small, and on other fishes as an adult. However, bull trout are opportunistic feeders taking almost any organism of suitable size when available. Frogs, snakes, mice, and ducklings have all been recorded in bull trout food habits studies.

Bull trout become sexually mature at around four years of age with spawning occurring from September through November. Migratory bull trout move upstream as pairs and may spawn every year or every other year. Redd sites (actual nest sites chosen for spawning) are situated in gravel bars in shallow cold streams. Studies have shown that the addition of fine silts to gravel bars will significantly decrease spawning success (table one) (Weaver and White 1985).

The incubation period for bull trout eggs is extremely long and young fry may take up to 225 days to emerge from the gravel bars. Consequently bull trout are extremely vulnerable to siltation problems and bed load movement during this period. Young migrant bull trout may remain in their natal streams for two or three years. Complex migration patterns and strategies are characteristic of bull trout, dolly varden, and Arctic char.

Table One
Life History Summary for the Bull Trout.

Age at first reproduction
4-5 years
Number of eggs produced
1,300 to 9,000
Maximum size
greater than 30 pounds and 36 inches
Life span
up to 10 years
Food habits
juveniles insectivorous adults piscivorous
Incubation success--temperature
0-2 deg.C=80-95 percent success
6 deg.C=60-90 percent success
8-9 deg.C=0-20 percent success
Incubation success--fine sediments
20 percent fines=40 percent success
30 percent fines=20 percent success
40 percent fines=1 percent success
Migration strategies
resident, adfluvial, fluvial, anadromous
Closely related species
dolly varden, lake trout, brook trout
Optimal/maximum water temperature
4-9 deg.C-15 deg.C juveniles, 18 deg.C adults
Spawning season
September through November
Spawning substrate H2O depth/H2O flow
gravel 0.2-0.8 m/ 0.2-0.6 m/s

Dealt a Losing Hand--Bull Trout Decline

At the beginning of this century, bull trout was abundant throughout most drainages within its occupied range. However, because of the migratory behavior of the bull trout, their distribution within occupied drainages tended to be patchy (Shelly Spalding, pers. commun.). Although no one ever attempted to document bull trout populations earlier in this century, it is now known that bull trout populations are highly fragmented and large segments of major rivers are almost devoid of bull trout.

Biologists have known of the bull trout's decline for at least two decades, but until recently management agencies have done little to reverse this process. Typically, state fish and wildlife agencies focused their management efforts on salmon or introduced trout. In Washington, for example, conservation efforts have been focused on salmon and little attention was paid to the bull trout (Shelly Spalding, pers. commun.).

It was not until Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks funded a status report on bull trout in 1992 (Thomas 1992) that the precarious position of the bull trout became apparent. This review found that stream reaches occupied by bull trout averaged 42 percent for 11,759 miles of potential waterways in Montana. Based on the current distribution of bull trout, the report assumed that all these waterways were historically occupied by bull trout. The review concluded that many of the Montana bull trout populations are isolated and at high risk of extinction. The degree of bull trout decline in Montana surprised both state and federal management agencies.

Fisheries management is complicated by a feud between state conservation agencies that manage fish and wildlife populations and the federal agencies that manage much fish and wildlife habitat and have authority over endangered species.

Unfortunately for the bull trout, both views are accurate. Federal land management and myopic federal programs ignored the ecology of salmonids and contributed to the decline of bull trout. Yet until recently the states have stood by and managed the bull trout, a game fish in most states, into oblivion.

Rather than being continuously distributed throughout all major rivers systems of the Pacific Northwest, the bull trout now exists as scattered small populations isolated by large stretches of unoccupied habitat. Metapopulation function has been largely disabled and local populations are now extremely vulnerable to extirpation. This trend is particularly disturbing because it fits well into the formula for extinction:

  1. Fragment the population;
  2. Degrade the habitat; and
  3. Introduce catastrophic events.
Aquatic ecosystems are as different from terrestrial systems as water is from earth. Fresh water systems in the Pacific Northwest are basically a linear environment. Imagine mainstem rivers as rope and tributary streams as string. Break the rope in a few places and it soon becomes impossible for fish in one tributary stream to interact with those in another tributary stream. Unlike terrestrial systems where the shortest dispersal route between two points can be a straight line, fish must follow the sinuous course of streams and rivers. There are no other options. For the bull trout, the strong portion of their habitat has already been severed and it is mainly the strings which sustain them now.

The causes of this decline of bull trout are many and varied and have worked in concert with each other to cumulatively impact this and other native salmonid species. Impacts on bull trout can be categorized into three groups:

  1. problems with land management
  2. problems with water management and
  3. problems with fisheries management.
A detailed examination of each of these categories reveals that a century of ill conceived state and federal government policies have contributed significantly to the decline of bull trout.

Land Management Problems--Habitat Degradation

It seems strange that an entirely aquatic organism can be impacted by land management activities. However, some of the most significant factors suppressing bull trout populations relates to how the land is managed. A survey of fisheries biologists in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington was used to establish the types of impacts suppressing bull trout populations and their relative importance. Overall, forest management practices was the factor cited most often for suppressing bull trout populations (table two).

Table Two
Factors Suppressing Bull Trout Populations by State

	# of
State	Pops	Forest	Agric.	Mining	Grazing	Hydro	Passage	Harvest	Poach	Alien
ID	 72	  53	 14	 19	 38	  6	 53	 38	 14	 17
MT	234	  54	 25	 10	 16	 26	 42	 21	 42	 60
NV	  1	 100	  0	  0	  0	  0	100	100	100	  0
OR	 54	  82	 44	 15	 48	 15	 43	 11	  4	 65
WA	 77	  52	 14	  7	  9	 23	 29	  3	 34	 33
Total	438	  57	 24	 11	 22	 21	 42	 19	 31	 49
Source: Fish & Wildlife Service, "Warranted but precluded administrative twelve-month finding on petition to list the bull trout under the Endangered Species Act," Portland, Oregon, 1994. Data based on reports by knowledgeable fisheries biologists. Figures for suppressing factors are a percentage. Most populations are suppressed by more than one factor.

The influence of poorly executed land management practices related to logging, grazing, and roads on stream characteristics is well documented. Poor management practices influence both the immediate impacted area and a considerable distance down stream from increased sediment loads in the stream. Approximately 60 percent of the watersheds in Idaho and Montana west of the divide are extensively degraded from land management practices (logging, roads, grazing) (Isaacson 1994). Only 18 percent of all bull trout populations and stream segments rangewide are not threatened by degraded conditions. It should come as no surprise that fisheries biologists frequently report that bull trout spawning strongholds are associated with unmanaged watersheds with near pristine streams.

The bull trout is a very sensitive indicator of overall riverine ecosystem health in the Pacific Northwest. Among the salmon family, the bull trout is perhaps one of the most stringent for requiring clean cold water for successful reproduction and survival. Bull trout have little tolerance of waters warmer than 64deg. F (Sandborn, 1995), and it is very sensitive to sedimentation of streams. Exceed their tolerance limits for either of these factors and the bull trout disappears.

Like the childrens' game of "Pickup-Stix," where the players must remove individual sticks from a heap without disturbing the rest, tinkering with various forms of habitat degradation works synergistically to affect overall change. For example, removal of riparian vegetation through logging, or overgrazing, and the amount of instream woody debris--a critical component of bull trout habitat--also decreases (Ziller, 1992). The reduced stream cover also results in increased stream temperatures, often exceeding the 64deg. F limit to which bull trout are so sensitive. All activities which cause a loss of riparian buffer zones, including overgrazing, logging, road construction, and home-building; also increase overland flow of runoff to the stream, carrying increased sediment loads and increasing bank destabilization through higher velocities.

In addition to riparian vegetation destruction, improper grazing often leads to collapsing streambanks, increasing sediment loadings, and increasing the streams width-to-depth ratio (Ziller, 1992 and Bader et al., 1993). Streams suffering from such affects warm faster because they are wider and shallower, exposing more units of water to warming per unit of sunlight. In addition, collapsed banks reduce suitable bank habitat available to bull trout.

Mining activities have also impacted the bull trout. Mine-related diversions often dewater entire streams, and toxic discharges from improper mining operations and failed tailings ponds are responsible for large fish kills (Bader et al., 1993). The Clark Fork River in western Montana has been severely impacted by heavy metals leached from mine tailings. Fish kills in the Clark Fork River have repeatedly occurred following heavy rains which flush toxic substances into the River. There is little question that this has suppressed the bull trout population in this river (Thomas 1992).

Although not cited as a major impact to bull trout, suburban development has probably also played a role in reducing habitat. Home construction along streams and rivers often results in riparian vegetation reduction and removal of woody debris, and there may be increased pollutant loadings to streams from septic systems. Suburban development and population growth are also responsible for stream dewatering to meet domestic water supply demands.

Habitat degradation and its link to the decline of bull trout is well established. It should be of no surprise that the few secure populations of bull trout occur in near pristine watersheds (e.g. South Fork of the Flathead River). Biologists and concerned citizens have spoken out about poor timber harvest practices and excessive livestock grazing for years. Habitat degradation is a crucial step towards promoting species extinctions. Unfortunately, many of the these bull trout habitat impacts occur as a result of subsidized federal programs for timber harvest and livestock grazing. Moreover, many of these impacts could be avoided or mitigated through proper environmental analysis and planning.

Water Management Problems:
Hydropower, Passage Barriers, and Irrigation

Water management problems can impact bull trout by fragmenting populations, changing water flow patterns, and degrading water quality. Dams and other passage barriers are collectively a significant impact to bull trout throughout their range (table two) and result in fragmented populations--an important first step towards extinction.

Metapopulation function can be disabled by a series of dams on the major rivers such as in the Columbia River basin. Passage barriers delay or even block upstream migration of adult bull trout to their spawning areas (Ratliff and Howell, 1992, Craig and Wissmar 1993) and can also limit genetic interchange between bull trout populations, isolating the resulting subpopulations and reducing genetic diversity.

There are numerous examples of the impacts of passage barriers on bull trout. Many migratory bull trout populations have been extirpated as a result of dams in the Columbia River basin (Brown 1992, Goetz 1991) and bull trout populations on the upper Columbia River are clearly fragmented by dams without adequate fish passage facilities. The extirpation of bull trout from the McCloud River in California is attributed to construction of a major dam in 1965.

However, the role of dams, is not universally viewed as bad by fisheries managers. Although dams on the Flathead and Swan Rivers in Montana may have curtailed population exchange on the Flathead River system, Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks personnel claim that these dams have restricted introduced lake trout to Flathead Lake and protected upstream populations of bull trout. This view does not consider that bull trout would have done better without the dams and without the introduction of lake trout.

Use of river water for irrigation of agricultural crops is perhaps one of the most significant impacts to bull trout on mainstem rivers (Brian Sandborn, Chris Hunter, pers. commun.). Irrigation creates at least four major problems for bull trout.

Many of the water management problems can be traced back to federal programs to supply electricity to the region and irrigation water for agricultural crops. These programs were designed with little or no consideration for the bull trout and many of these projects have been subsidized with federal money .

Fisheries Management Problems

In addition to land and water management problems, the plight of the bull trout has been compounded by a century of poor fisheries management decisions and practices. Around the turn of the century brook trout were introduced into the rivers and streams of the northern Rocky Mountains without consideration of the impacts this would have on native salmonids through competition and hybridization. This was followed with the introduction of other non-native salmonids. Shortly after this, many fisheries managers regarded the bull trout as a pest species and specifically tried to exterminate it.

For example, during 1913 and 1914 in Montana, large-scale commercial net-fishing was permitted in an attempt to eradicate the species (Brown, 1971). As recently as 1990 programs were conducted to eliminate bull trout through direct killing of the fish by paying bounties and poisoning of waterways (Simpson and Wallace, 1978, Ratliff and Howell 1992). Many of these poisoning programs were funded by the federal government through the Dingell-Johnson fund.

The view of the bull trout as a pest species probably originated because of its original abundance as a highly successful species and its extreme predatory habits on eggs and juveniles of other salmonid fish species. With the introduction of non-native salmonids to western waterways, a native fish feeding on introduced stock could not be tolerated.

The fisheries management problems exploded into an ecological nightmare with the introduction of non-native salmonids into the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest. The brook trout that was first introduced into Montana in 1889 is native to the Hudson Bay and Labrador regions in Canada, and the upper Mississippi and the Appalachians regions of the United States. It was extensively propagated and introduced into Montana steams and lakes until 1954.

The brook trout is genetically close enough to the bull trout to permit hybridization. Offspring of the bull trout/brook trout cross are infertile. Brook trout have a higher fecundity rate and lower age at first reproduction (2 years old vs. 4 years old) so that when bull trout and brook trout occur in the same waters, the brook trout will numerically swamp the bull trout because of their greater reproductive potential. The problems of habitat overlap and forage competition between bull trout and brook trout have not even been examined. This may also be a major concern for bull trout conservation, especially in headwater areas where bull trout are frequently isolated as non-migratory populations.

Rainbow, brown, and lake trout were also introduced to Montana around 1890 and have occupied mainstem streams and lakes formerly inhabited by bull trout. These species may compete with bull trout for forage resources and this can be aggravated by stocking of hatchery rainbow trout at artificially high densities. Lake trout are in the process of replacing bull trout in Flathead Lake in Northwestern Montana, formerly considered a bull trout stronghold, and there are at least two other cases where lake trout have been documented displacing bull trout. Brown trout are believed to be in direct competition with bull trout because they achieve similar size of bull trout and have overlapping spawning seasons.

The problem of introduction of alien salmonids and planting of hatchery fishes does not stop with hybridization, habitat overlap, and forage competition. The introduction of exotic fish into the streams inhabited by bull trout has also introduced new diseases into the ecosystem.

Whirling disease, which is an internal parasite that affects the cartilage in juvenile trout and causes them to swim in an erratic manner, is now present in both the upper Clark Fork and Swan River systems in Montana. Whirling disease has been found in wild rainbow, brook and brown trout in Montana. Whirling disease was introduced to North America from Europe in 1956 and was first reported in the Rocky Mountain west in 1987. It has spread rapidly throughout the West as a result of stocking infected hatchery fishes but it is also capable of spreading throughout river systems by natural dispersal.

Although whirling disease has not been documented in bull trout, only one attempt has been made to study this disease in bull trout. That study failed when eggs collected in Montana were not kept in a chilled environment at a California fish hatchery. Brook trout have been documented with whirling disease in Montana and based on their genetic similarities with bull trout, it would not be unreasonable to expect bull trout to be susceptible to whirling disease too. Whirling disease has the potential to be a catastrophic event capable of causing extirpation of local bull trout populations.

Due to their aggressive predatory nature, bull trout are easily caught by anglers, and as a result, are extremely susceptible to overharvest and poaching (illegal harvest). Although poaching is presently a minor problem, when bull trout were more abundant there was a significant illegal harvest in western Montana (Stephen Duke, pers. commun.). Overharvest of bull trout becomes very important in isolated populations that are already reduced through land and water management problems. State fish and wildlife departments within the range of bull trout have been slow to adjust their management of bull trout.

Although all states have restricted legal harvest of bull trout in most bodies of water, these restrictions were generally not implemented until after 1990. Many streams, rivers, and lakes inhabited by bull trout now have mandatory catch-and-release restrictions, but this relies upon education of fishermen to properly identify fish species and to properly handle bull trout for effective survival after release. However, it is believed that incidental take of bull trout is not a significant factor in their decline (Stephen Duke, pers. commun.)

The fact that state fish and wildlife agencies permitted a game fish species to decline to the point of being threatened with extinction without adjusting their management of the species does not speak highly of their concern for native fish species or their level of population monitoring. In some cases, the bull trout may have been overshadowed by salmon conservation and introduced salmonid fisheries.

Yet it is still relevant to ask, "What were state fish and wildlife agencies doing for the past two decades?" The whole concept of managed fish and wildlife populations is that license fees and excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment is to be used to monitor game species populations to prevent over harvest. If the populations of game species are not being effectively monitored, there should be no legal harvest.

Catastrophic Events

The formula for extinction is to fragment the populations, degrade existing habitat, and superimpose a catastrophic event on the remaining isolated populations. A classic example of this was a distinct resident Gulf Coast whooping crane population being lost during a major hurricane in the 1950s. Had the whooping crane population been large and robust, birds outside the path of the hurricane would have soon filled the void left by birds killed in the hurricane. Without this metapopulation function, that isolated population was tragically lost forever.

The bull trout is rapidly moving to a position that catastrophic events can result in extirpation of isolated populations. For example, in 1992, on Overwhich Creek on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, a major landslide resulting from excessive logging destroyed an estimated 600 bull trout. Following a catastrophic event such as this, it is difficult for the few surviving fishes to reestablish a viable population without immigration from other populations.

We can hope that the human-caused catastrophic events--dams, irrigation projects, logging, grazing, introduced fish species--that have contributed to bull trout decline will not be repeated in the future, but even this is not a certainty. The Columbia River basin seems to have been developed to its potential for dams and irrigation projects but the demand for electricity and irrigation water is likely to increase in the future. There are suitable sites for additional dams but there is tremendous public resistance against even small scale hydropower (Bill Horton, pers commun.).

Timber harvest in the Pacific Northwest will continue and will probably cumulatively impact watersheds. Grazing reform has been recently discussed but the odds of actual on the ground change are slim. There will also be catastrophic events in the future which are likely to impact apparently secure isolated bull trout populations but are largely beyond the control of management agencies. Many of these catastrophic events would not be of major concern if bull trout metapopulations still existed.

Five catastrophic events appear reasonably certain to occur in portions of the bull trout range at some time in the future. These catastrophic events have a high probability of extirpating small isolated populations and contributing to further declines in bull trout numbers and range distribution.

Introduced Disease

Introduced diseases have figured significantly in the decline of several North American wildlife species. Sylvatic plague has been affecting prairie dog populations for nearly a half century and is partially the cause for the precarious position of the black-footed ferret. The upper respiratory tract disease syndrome in desert tortoises prompted the emergency listing of that species in 1989 when it was determined that the disease was capable of killing over 90 percent of the tortoises over broad geographic areas. Disease has not been a documented problem with bull trout but whirling disease cannot be ruled out as a threat to this species. From 1991-1994, whirling disease appeared to reduce rainbow trout populations by 90 percent in a 50 mile segment of the Madison River, and if similar events occurred in an isolated bull trout population it is doubtful that population recovery would be possible given existing land management and water management problems.

Catastrophic Fire

During the summer of 1988, it became apparent that catastrophic wildlife is a normal episodic event in the northern Rocky Mountains. In that year, landscape scale fire occurred in Yellowstone National Park, burning about half of the forested habitat in the park. Catastrophic fire can drastically alter water quality, water temperature, wood debris, bank vegetation, and stream flow characteristics. Wildfire has already been documented as impacting bull trout populations (Shelly Spalding, pers. commun.). Wilderness areas with near pristine watersheds such as the upper portion of the South Fork of the Flathead River in Montana are considered bull trout strongholds. Ultimately, at some point conditions will be right for a large scale wildfire in these wilderness settings that exceed the capabilities of government fire suppression efforts.

Based on our knowledge of bull trout habitat requirements large scale fire in these areas will result in population declines in the affected watersheds. Prior to fragmentation of bull trout populations, metapopulation function would have assured population recovery in watersheds impacted by fire as reforestation progressed. This may not be the case anymore for these supposedly secure populations which are now isolated by dams (e.g. Hungry Horse Reservoir) and degraded downstream habitat.

Salvage Timber Sales

When Congress passed the rescission bill in the summer of 1995 cutting 16 billion dollars from the federal budget they attached a rider to this bill enacting legislation that permitted significant harvest of "salvage" timber. The salvage measure will remain in effect through the end of fiscal 1996 and any sale prepared, advertised, awarded, or logged during this period will automatically be deemed to satisfy the requirements of all applicable federal laws. This includes the act, Forest Management Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act and in addition, the sales are not subject to the Forest Service appeals process.

The definition of salvage logging is sufficiently broad that timber stands do not need to have substantial quantities of dead trees to qualify for harvest (Clint McCarthy pers. commun.). Much of this timber harvest will be directed to previously unroaded areas and has the potential to degrade watersheds that presently support bull trout (Shelly Spalding pers. commun.). Based on the existing data on the relationship of bull trout to logged watersheds, salvage logging has a high potential to impact isolated bull trout populations.

For example, the Payette National Forest is likely to offer 27 salvage sales that will require about 100 miles of new roads in watersheds inhabited by the bull trout. Sales and road construction are planned on several other forests where bull trout are known to occur, including the Boise (10 miles of new road) and Clearwater (16 miles of new road) (John McCarthy, pers. commun.).

Salvage logging is entirely under the control and jurisdiction of national forest managers. If any isolated bull trout population is lost as a result of salvage timber sales, it will be with the blessings of the Forest Service and Congress. The Forest Service says that timber sales will be conducted in accordance with existing federal laws (Rick Stowl, pers. commun.), but the level of compliance remains to be seen.

Fall and winter floods in 1995 and 1996 led to numerous landslides in Pacific Northwest forests. Forest Service inventories of landslides indicate that most were associated with logging roads, many were associated with clearcuts, and few took place in pristine forests.

Karen Pratt has studied bull trout in Lighting Creek, a tributary to the Pend Oreille River in northern Idaho, for more than a decade and has documented periodic landslides resulting from logging and roads. During this period, Lighting Creek has become a braided stream due to excessive sediment loads and bull trout numbers have substantially declined. Salvage logging in formerly unroaded areas will predictably degrade watersheds and further reduce bull trout populations.


Drought is a recurrent climate feature in the Pacific Northwest and may occur over a series of years. Although drought is not predictable, it is nearly certain that it will occur at some point in the future as a normal variation in climate. Drought will result in reduced summer stream flows and increased water temperature and will predictably reduce spawning success and survival of bull trout. This factor may become increasingly important in areas where bull trout populations are doing poorly due other impacts. Drought also has the potential to impact watersheds over a large area as opposed to other catastrophic events which are generally restricted to a specific watershed. Simultaneously impacting several bull trout populations over a broad region may have cumulative affects that may make population recovery difficult when normal precipitation patterns return.

Climate Change

While it may be appropriate to consider the bull trout as an ice age fish dependent upon clean, cold water for successful reproduction and survival and that its historic distribution is reduced from the Pleistocene, it is inappropriate to consider this as a species marked for extinction because it cannot adapt to a changing climate. At the turn of the century, there was an abundance of rivers in the Pacific Northwest that were suitable for bull trout. It has been human-caused changes in these streams that have brought about the decline of bull trout. However, should predictions of global warming become true during the next century, only a small rise in temperature could significantly reduce bull trout spawning success. Low elevation bull trout populations might suffer most, but it also might be more difficult to maintain isolated populations at the head waters of major drainages.

Figuring the Odds--Bull Trout Extinction

Although the decline of the bull trout seems to be a recent occurrence, in reality it probably has been a long-term process during this century that could have been easily predicted as the dams went up, the trees were cut and the region's human population grew. Just as the bison and prairie dog ecosystems were targeted and destroyed as part of government policy, the riverine ecosystems in the Columbia River basin have been targeted and destroyed by government policies. Albeit the government did not have malicious intent in this case, the results are the same--a disabled ecosystem.

It is difficult to imagine any other outcome with the number of dams on the major drainages within this region, the degree of timber harvest and associated roads, the level of agricultural development in the major valleys, and the lack of management concern by conservation agencies. The fact that the bull trout is not the only fish in this system that is decline suggests that these impacts are real and biologically highly significant.

The accumulation of disturbances to its habitat have left the bull trout in a very precarious and dangerous situation. The populations are highly fragmented, isolated mainly in headwater areas in the upper portions of watersheds.

Habitat fragmentation is dangerous for any species. Extinction becomes more probable through risks that are deterministic (permanent or long-term loss or change of a critical component of habitat), stochastic (random variations in demographics or in the environment), or genetic (inability to adapt to changing environmental conditions because of limited genetic diversity) (Rieman and McIntyre, 1993).

Fragmented populations are genetically cut off from each other, greatly increasing the odds that they will not be able to draw from a large population base or gene pool to help hedge their bets against a changing environment or random events. It is important to realize that deterministic, stochastic, and genetic risks can work in concert to extinguish a species. An isolated population has little chance of being refounded following a local extinction as compared to adjacent subpopulations where dispersal to vacated habitat will reestablish a lost population. As populations become isolated, the probability of local extinctions becoming permanent increases and the entire metapopulation moves incrementally toward extinction.

In an effort to quantify extinction risks for isolated populations of bull trout, Rieman and McIntyre (1993) utilized several population viability techniques which incorporate both deterministic and stochastic processes. One technique is based on population simulation, and the other on analytical projections of population trend. The first technique requires a large volume of information or assumptions which are unavailable for bull trout, while the second requires time series data on abundance. Redd count data can be used in this analysis.

Thus using redd counts as a method of estimating variance in rates of change, they found a high degree of variability among populations. In short, the estimated probability that any bull trout population would persist for 100 years ranged from less than 0.10 to more than 0.95. Even given the fact that these analyses are first approximations, and that the science of estimating extinction risks is new and evolving, the numbers don't look good. No studied population was certain to survive for 100 years based on present trend data.

Moreover, this analysis did not take into account the probability of catastrophic events and high potential for extirpation of local populations. For example, if a proposed open pit gold mine is developed adjacent to the Blackfoot River in Montana as planned, and water quality is diminished, will the small population of bull trout in this river survive?

Many of the existing bull trout populations are small with only 200-1,000 individuals remaining. Just from the genetic standpoint alone survival of these populations is uncertain. Conservation biologists estimate that at least 2,000 individuals are required to maintain a genetically diverse population. Management of small bull trout populations will require special attention on the part of fish and wildlife agencies. There is some question if these agencies have the technical expertise, financial resources, and the political backing required to assure the long-term population persistence of bull trout in the Pacific Northwest. However, if nothing is done, it is quite likely that the bull trout's days are numbered.

Stop-gap measures or mediocre management might get isolated bull trout populations through a ten- or twenty-year period, but there is a relatively high probability that many populations will not survive to the end of the next century without some direct management of populations. It is difficult to think beyond the next century, but it is imperative to develop long-term conservation strategies. It is apparent that bull trout did not come through the first century of settlement in the Columbia River basin in good shape and there will probably be additional cumulative impacts to these riverine ecosystems in the coming century.

Failure to act now to preserve existing bull trout populations may result in a future situation similar to that of the whooping crane, California condor, or black-footed ferret. It has been clearly demonstrated with these and other endangered species that when you are down to the last small population it is exceedingly difficult to reestablish new populations or even maintain the existing population under natural conditions. For the bull trout, the cumulative impacts of a variety of factors working against it will make population recovery very difficult. If overharvest were the only impact affecting bull trout, it would be reasonable to assume that stopping bull trout fishing would allow the species to recover. However, with the variety of land, water, and fisheries management problems already firmly in place, it is unlikely that reducing a single impact will result in widespread recovery of bull trout.

The bull trout is simply a symptom of a much larger problem in the Columbia River basin. The riverine ecosystem in this region has been heavily impacted during this century and the fishes and other aquatic life adapted to this system are suffering greatly as a result of these impacts. Nearly all native salmonids, the white sturgeon, and possibly other fishes are in decline (Rick Stowl, pers. commun.). It is difficult to imagine that these impacts will ever be reversed or that they will not become more severe as the human population of this region continues to increase.

If management agencies are to succeed in saving the bull trout, they are going to have to develop aggressive policies favoring the bull trout that are based on a sound recovery plan. This action will require the cooperation of both state and federal agencies and will also require political support. If politicians are promoting the concept that some species are too expensive to save and that they should be allowed to go extinct, then that outcome may be a reality.

A Rigged Game--How'd we get here, Anyway?

Much of the bull trout's dilemma relates to being in the wrong place at the wrong time--a fish swimming in the way of "progress." While the bull trout may be a fish swimming in the way of progress, much of that progress has been promoted by the federal government with little regard for the effects on bull trout or other wildlife populations.

In fact, federal policies have effectively rewarded, with tax breaks or subsidies, the alteration, reduction, and destruction of bull trout habitat. Meanwhile, the government has done little or nothing to evaluate these impacts of those policies on bull trout. Nor has the government tried to provide incentives to preserve bull trout populations and habitat.

While we cannot quantify their direct impacts on bull trout specifically, numerous policies and programs have certainly helped endangered species across the threshold to extinction. These include tax policies, irrigation and agricultural programs, and public land management activities.

Tax Policies

According to a recent report from the Center for International Environmental Law (Clark and Downes, 1995), there are a number of tax policies which may have contributed to impacts on endangered and threatened species, including bull trout. The first of these, Section 613 of the Internal Revenue Service Code, allows a percentage depletion for extractive activities, that is, it allows for a flat percentage deduction of gross revenues earned from mining property. This deduction is unrelated to the taxpayer's investment in the property, and can, over time, exceed the costs of investment and mineral extraction. In addition to fostering environmental damage, this allowance costs the U.S. Treasury an annual loss of revenue exceeding over $1 billion from the fuel and non-fuels extraction industries.

Section 617 of the IRS Code allows mineral extraction industries to deduct the costs related to exploration expenses, including drilling, testing, and construction of shafts and tunnels, in the year they occur, rather than over the life of the project. This encourages activity in remote and inaccessible locations, and costs the U.S. Treasury between $50 and $100 million dollars a year. In addition, Section 263(c) enables oil, gas, and geothermal well operators to deduct "intangible" drilling expenses, including the cost of labor, fuel, materials, supplies, repairs to equipment, and depreciation of drilling equipment.

Section 48 allows a deduction of 10 percent of the portion of amortizable basis of reforestation expenses up to $10,000 for qualified timber property. To qualify, however, this land must "contain trees in significant commercial quantities and which is held . . . for sale or use in the commercial production of timber products." If you want the deduction, you have to cut down the trees first!

Section 163(h) of the IRS Code allows for acquisition indebtedness (up to $1,000,000) or home equity indebtedness (up to $100,000) for a qualified residence. A qualified residence may be either a primary or secondary home. In 1993, it cost the U.S. Treasury $44 billion, and in 1997 is expected to cost $60 billion. This is particularly unfortunate in that many second homes are vacation homes constructed in areas where their presence is more likely to incur environmental impacts. While it may seem insignificant, it may be very important to survival of isolated bull trout populations.

Irrigation and Agricultural Programs

Massive federal programs placed some of the worlds largest dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries during the past 50 years and developed a variety of ambitious irrigation projects.

Tracking down federal, state, and local government contributions to bull trout impacts is difficult. Before proceeding very far along this route, one is quickly brought up short by the debate over what does and does not constitute a subsidy. Although exhaustive search of Internet resources turned up little in way of long-term, detailed cost-effectiveness analyses of governmental programs, there are a few case studies which help shed light on this issue.

One of these is an examination of irrigation subsidies comprising the Central Valley Project in Central California (GAO, 1994c):

Irrigators within the Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation Central Valley Project (CVP) have received federally subsidized water for up to 40 years under fixed-rate water service contracts. However, the fixed rates no longer function as intended; they do not cover the Bureau's operation and maintenance costs and have not been sufficient to repay virtually any of the $1 billion in the construction costs owed. Moreover, environmental and water use problems have been associated with irrigation practices carried out under these contracts.

It would be safe to say that this scenario is probably common to most, if not all, federally-funded irrigation projects in the United States.

Such programs encourage habitat alteration, reduction, and loss by providing cost-incentives to conduct environmentally harmful activities. The World Resources Institute states that direct government payments to agricultural producers in 1993 totaled more than $17 billion. Of that total amount, only $1.9 billion went to conservation programs (World Resources Institute, 1993).

Other agricultural subsidies, such as price support programs, are tied to productivity, and thus result in incentives to convert marginal lands to agricultural purposes, and to maximize the utilization of fertilizers and pesticides (Clark and Downes, 1995). Such incentives affect not only bull trout, but all threatened and endangered species.

Public Land Management

At the same time that the federal government has aided irrigation and agriculture, the Forest Service has promoted systematic logging of the mountainous headwaters throughout bull trout habitat. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have also developed livestock grazing programs that have put cattle on most of the rangelands administered by these agencies.

These federal programs that have impacted bull trout have benefited many people in the region economically but frequently this benefit has come at the expense of the American taxpayer. In addition, there has been a lack of accountability on the part federal government to fully evaluate the cost of these programs. Many of these programs are operated as a direct subsidy to those that directly benefit from the program

Subsidies to the timber industry, again, are difficult to quantify. However, the Forest Service, within the Department of Agriculture, manages 191 million acres of national forests and grasslands. Many of the national forests within the bull trout's range, particularly in Idaho and Montana, spend far more tax dollars on timber than they return to the federal treasury.

Eliminating Dirty Dealing

Until mechanisms are put in place to actually evaluate the real costs of environmental impacts, it is unlikely that the bull trout will recover. There are a number of areas which need to be addressed in order to accomplish this.

Redefining the Yardstick

Perhaps the most basic way of dealing with unbalanced economic incentives which impact bull trout and other threatened and endangered species and their habitat is to begin considering the actual costs associated with such environmental degradation. This should begin with a re-evaluation of how costs and benefits are measured. The main indicator used in making these assessments at present is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Unfortunately, the GDP does not consider the economic benefits for "natural capital" consisting of non-renewable resources, renewable resources, and environmental services such as flood control, climate control, food provision, and genetic stock (Clark and Downes, 1995). Such convolutions lead to a rather bizarre interpretation of environmental impacts:

The current national income accounting system provides an example of a perverse economic incentive. . . Rather than recognizing the Exxon Valdez spill for what it was, namely a decline in the value of natural resources in the area, it is recorded as an increase in the national income. The spill boosted GNP! All the clean-up expenditures served to increase national income, but no account was taken of the consequent depreciation of the natural environment. Under the current system, the accounts make no distinction between growth that is occurring because a country is "cashing in" its natural resource endowment with a consequent irreversible decline in its value and sustainable growth where the value of the endowment remains. [Tietenberg, 1993]

A more balanced approach, requested by President Clinton, would have been pursued by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis. This effort, which would have established the Integrated Economic and Environmental Satellite Accounts and extended the definition of capital to include natural and environmental resources, was derailed by Congress when they refused to fund it (Clark and Downes, 1995). Several international organizations, including the United Nations and the World Bank, are suggesting alternative methods of incorporating environmental values into economic analysis.

Dealing Straight

Additionally, it will be necessary to eliminate tax breaks, subsidies, and other economic incentives which encourage damage to the environment and fuel the loss of habitat. Such programs not only impact the environment, they are of questionable value in terms of their overall fiscal soundness. In these days of unfathomable national debt, such subsidies need to be carefully evaluated for not only their degree of economic soundness, but also determining who actually benefits. Welfare reform should most certainly not exclude programs which offer economic breaks to corporations and to the wealthy.

In addition, programs and incentives which promote environmental protection should be forwarded. There are number of efforts underway to incorporate incentives for habitat conservation. These include such things as wetland mitigation banking, individual transferable quotas for fisheries protection, expansive use of environmental assurance bonding or environmental insurance, and legal liability.

Wetland mitigation banking sets up a system whereby an entity can create or improve wetlands in one area to be used as mitigation for impacts to other wetlands. Theoretically, such wetland "credits" can be saved, cashed in, traded, or sold. Individual transferable quotas are based on allocating a fixed number of shares which would allow catching a percentage of the total allowable catch. These shares can be sold, leased, or transferred at will. Environmental assurance bonding, common in the coal extraction industry, require a bond of sufficient size to compensate for environmental impacts or lack of performance to be posted prior to the activity. Legal liability imposes penalties on those who impact the environment.

While all of these mechanisms offer possible incentives to environmental protection, and may have direct benefits to the bull trout, it will be critical to evaluate not only the environmental soundness of such efforts, but also to monitor and track their application. In the past, many of these types of programs, while looking quite good on paper, have serious and unforeseen negative environmental ramifications.

Changing the Odds--Bull Trout Conservation Efforts

Although long-term population persistence of the bull trout cannot assured, this declining species still has sufficient distribution and numbers that should be responsive to restoration efforts. Although the bull trout is not in the same situation of the black-footed ferret or whooping crane which have only a single surviving population, it is a declining species, and it is clear that action needs to be taken to prevent further declines.

States within the historic range of the bull trout have belatedly begun conservation efforts, and Montana is considered a leader in this effort and is serving as a model for bull trout restoration (Shelly Spalding, Stephen Duke, pers. commun.). Although it is too early to determine if this effort will be adequate to reverse the decline of bull trout, it is a definitely a major commitment by the state of Montana to restore the species. Montana has taken the official position that the state will recover the species irrespective of the final outcome of federal listing of the bull trout. This restoration effort began with a Governor's Bull Trout Roundtable in December 1993.

The Bull Trout Roundtable consists of three main elements for developing and implementing a recovery plan. These elements are a bull trout restoration team comprised of agency administrators and interested public, a scientific group comprised of biologists with extensive fisheries experience, and watershed groups comprised of residents living within one of 12 watersheds used by bull trout. The restoration process involves developing recovery plans for each bull trout inhabited watershed (12 in Montana). These plans will be written by the restoration team based on guidance from the scientific team. The plans will then be presented to watershed groups for their input and advice on implementation. The restoration effort will involve public involvement and input throughout the process. Although the process has been time consuming, the restoration plans are progressing and the Blackfoot watershed is being developed as a model for the other 11 watersheds. Presently, the scientific group is developing status reports for each of the watersheds (Chris Hunter, Shelly Spalding pers. commun.).

In the interim, the 1995 Montana state legislature appropriated $1.6 million for stream restoration work focused primarily on bull trout. The majority of this stream restoration work has been concentrated on the Blackfoot River. Stream restoration has consisted of screening irrigation water intakes, and fencing key riparian areas from cattle grazing (Chris Hunter, pers. commun.).

Intensive stream restoration was completed in 1992 on one tributary of the North Fork of the Blackfoot River identified as an ancestral spawning stream. Bull trout had been eliminated from the stream due to a series of passage barriers but upon their removal, mature bull trout were observed to again use the stream (Thomas 1992).

The Department of State Lands has voluntarily discontinued timber harvest in Stream Side Management Zones along streams inhabited by bull trout. Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks has also closed nearly all legal harvest of bull trout in the state. In addition, the confluences of important bull trout tributaries are seasonally closed to fishing for the protection of bull trout during spawning. Montana is also working on public education concerning bull trout conservation and has plans to increase law enforcement efforts to prevent poaching (Chris Hunter pers. commun.).

Although there are many factors still working against bull trout restoration in Montana, the State has made a commitment both from the agency side and political side to recover the species in Montana rivers and streams. The strategy employed by Montana for restoration of bull trout is a vanguard effort and is applicable to other species at risk. Restoration of the bull trout will not be easy, and there is no assurance that it is even possible given the many management problems that cannot be changed, and because surviving bull trout populations are small and isolated. However, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks personnel certainly expressed a high degree of confidence concerning the restoration effort and are dedicated to restoring bull trout. The level of dedication is evidenced by the hiring of a bull trout coordinator whose job is to expedite the restoration effort.

Following the FWS warranted but precluded ruling, Idaho Game and Fish made an early effort to develop a bull trout restoration plan, but this effort did not include public or political input (Stephen Duke, pers. commun.). Momentum for this restoration plan was lost with a change of administration, but just recently the Governor of Idaho has committed the state to work on bull trout conservation in a manner similar to Montana (Bill Horton, pers. commun.).

Idaho's governor has appointed a ten-member steering committee to make recommendations for bull trout restoration. The steering committee is largely made up of agency personnel and industry representatives, and contains few biologists with bull trout experience. A scientific subcommittee advising the steering committee also lacks practical field experience with the bull trout (Karen Pratt, pers. commun.).

The steering committee made recommendations to the governor's office, which in turn has drafted a bull trout restoration plan that is now out for public comment (John McCarthy, pers. commun.). This plan was prepared, however, without a comprehensive statewide review of the status of the bull trout in Idaho.

Idaho restricted the harvest of bull trout in 1994 and will close all waters to bull trout harvest on 1 January 1996. Should the bull trout become a federally listed species, closure of approximately 3/4 of the water in Idaho to fishing may be a possibility (Bill Horton, pers. commun.) An intermediate step would be to close known bull trout spawning areas to fishing. Idaho also has a screening program on irrigation water intakes. This program has been in place for about 30 years, and of the 700+ water diversions on the Snake River approximately 400 have screening devices installed. This screening was originally required to protect salmon fisheries, and the Idaho Game and Fish Department is required to inspect the screens.

Oregon and Washington are working on bull trout conservation too, but their efforts are less than those of Montana and Idaho. In general their effort is directed at preventing federal listing of the species and not necessarily on species restoration (Stephen Duke pers. commun.). Although these states have concentrated their resources and management effort on salmon they have restricted the legal harvest of bull trout. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife prepared a status report on bull trout in 1992 and subsequently substantially reduced the legal harvest of bull trout on a statewide basis. The bull trout is listed as a declining species in Washington.

Oregon also prepared a bull trout status report in 1992 (Ratliff and Howell 1992) and has either closed waters to bull tout fishing or limited the daily catch to a single fish. A cooperative effort by state, federal, and private agencies has been remarkably successful at restoring the bull trout in the Metolius River and Lake Billy Chinook. In 1986, biologists were able to find only 27 redds (spawning nests) in this aquatic system. After surveys of habitat conditions and efforts to protect habitat and regulate fishing, the number of redds increased to more than 300 in 1994.

The bull trout has been extirpated in California and the state lists it as an endangered species. California has made one attempt to reintroduce the bull trout to the McCloud River but an initial evaluation of this reintroduction suggest that it has been unsuccessful. The isolated population of bull trout on Nevada's Jarbridge River may number 50 adults and is restricted almost entirely to the Jarbridge Wilderness Area. This population faces a high risk of extinction due to its isolation and small size.

The Forest Service has acknowledged that the existing forest plans for individual national forests has been inadequate to provide the habitat protection required by bull trout to assure long-term population persistence. When designing forest projects in the past, the defining criteria has been a minimum standard for bull trout habitat protection. The fallacy of managing for minimums has become patently obvious with the bull trout. Minimum standards were not sufficient to assure long-term population persistence.

To correct this management problem, the Forest Service developed a document entitled Inland Native Fish Strategies for the Columbia River basin. This document was signed on 28 July 1995 and the record of decision was issued a month latter. The purpose of this document is to provide interim habitat protection for the bull trout while the Columbia River Basin EIS is written and while each national forest works on updated forest plans. This document recognizes the riparian zone as a unique habitat requiring special management. It considers the habitat needs of fishes and the paradigm has shifted from minimum standards to limiting management actions that will help bull trout.

There is a memorandum of understanding that salvage logging will follow recommendations of Inland Native Fish Strategies (Rick Stowl, pers. commun.). A major feature of Inland Native Fish Strategies is moratorium on logging in buffer strips along riparian zones until a fisheries evaluation of the stream is completed or a Forest Service fisheries biologist says no evaluation is needed.

As a Category 1 species, the FWS is not directly involved with bull trout restoration. They have provided technical assistance to the states but have not provided any significant financial contributions to the state's restoration efforts. act Section 6 money does not become available for species recovery until a species is officially listed as threatened or endangered. Generally, states maintain that Section 6 money is inadequate for significant work on species recovery.

In recent years, considerable money has been dedicated to Columbia basin salmon recovery. Although this money is not going to bull trout restoration work, bull trout will benefit from this effort because they are dependent upon the same aquatic systems as salmon. If land and water management are changed to favor salmon, it will also benefit bull trout. In addition Young salmon may have been a major source of prey for adult bull trout and until salmon are restored to significant numbers bull trout will also occur in low densities (Stephen Duke and Bill Horton, pers. commun.).

The Bottom Line

One variation of Murphy's Law states that "If you mess around with a thing long enough, eventually you will break it." Nicholas Leeson, Robert Citron, and many others playing the derivatives game have learned the high price paid in dabbling with something they really didn't understand. They took the risks, and they suffered the losses. Unfortunately, so did many others. The bankruptcy of Barings left many people unemployed, and Orange County's frozen assets affected thousands of people and influenced world markets from Wall Street to Japan. And yet, every day, everywhere, millions of people are dabbling in something infinitely more complex, and ultimately far more dangerous.

Habitat alteration, reduction, and loss are the derivatives of the biological world. Complex models assist experts in determining how much wetland "value" can be lost, identifying the critical habitat components necessary for species existence, how much importance this animal or that plant has to its ecosystem, and how far water or air or land systems can be tweaked without causing too much upheaval.

Government offices, universities, and corporate public relations departments are replete with people who are convinced they know the answers, and can generate reams of printouts from complicated mathematical models and statistical procedures to back them up. On the other hand, local coffee shops and bars are replete with individuals who are also convinced they know the answers. They have logged or farmed or mined or grazed this mountain or that prairie for generations. Or at least for a generation. And they rely on the secure knowledge that things have always worked out. At least so far.

Any effort to quantify a species' importance, either scientific or offhanded, is ultimately dangerous because such a prediction must, by default, be based on some simplification of real world complexities. Efforts to predict outcomes of ecosystem tampering are frightening because their basic assumption is that ecosystem processes are either completely understood or are unimportant.

This is not to say that such predictions are not useful, but it is to say that there is an inherent risk in using predictions to ascertain the degree of damage a natural system can sustain. And it is infinitely more dangerous to rely on such a process to conclude that any given species is expendable. Without truly understanding the myriad interconnections comprising natural systems, it is a fool's game to begin altering them to any great degree. As E.O. Wilson (1992) so eloquently stated:

Every species is part of an ecosystem, an expert specialist of its kind, tested relentlessly as it spreads its influence through the food web. To remove it is to entrain changes in other species raising the populations of some, reducing or even extinguishing others, risking a downward spiral of the larger assemblage.

And while the experts debate of the complexities and inner functioning of the various systems, it is in many ways analogous to discussing the intricacies of the fuel system on an automobile without really understanding the cooling system or electrical system. If one system fails, the car won't run.

With the bull trout, it is just one part of a much larger system. For the past century this system has been subjected to a myriad of impacts from minor events that affect a small section of a small tributary to major projects such as the Grand Coulee, the Dalles, Bonneville, and McNary dams which cause major impacts over extended areas. As a result of the accumulation of these impacts bull trout populations are fragmented, isolated and small. Among some conservation management agency personnel there is optimism that bull trout can be managed at their current level or even restored in terms of numbers and distribution but there are others who are less optimistic.

The challenge of maintaining just the present bull trout populations with the current level of impacts is formidable but impacts to this system are dynamic and will likely change if not cumulatively increase during the next century. The challenge of maintaining wild bull trout is compounded by their already small population size. Even under optimal conditions, maintaining small isolated populations for a century or more can be difficult at best.

It remains to be seen if state and federal conservation agencies have the resolve and political support to adequately organize and execute plans for bull trout recovery. The cost of implementing these plans both in terms of the financial outlay and its perceived impact on the regional human economy will undoubtedly be weighed against the benefits of recovering bull trout.

To dabble daily in determining how much worth an organism has without really understanding the overall system in which the organism lives is to risk a complete system failure. And that is the danger. Anyone engaged in habitat destruction, alteration, or reduction is gambling that there will be no impact. They are certain that no harm will come of it, that they know what they are doing. Just like Nicholas Leeson or Robert Citron. But what if, just like Nicholas Leeson or Robert Citron, they too are wrong?

Whether economic incentives provide impetus for salvation of the bull trout or not, indeed, whether economic analysis ever comes to incorporate the values of a functioning environment at all, is really not the critical issue. The critical issue with the bull trout, as with all species endangered or otherwise, really lies in society learning that the basic precept is not "What is the cost to save them?" but rather, "What is the cost to sacrifice them?"


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Brian Sandborn, U.S. Forest Service, Deerlodge National Forest, Fisheries Biologist

Chris Hunter, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Fisheries Biologist

Shelly Spalding, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Fisheries Biologist

Rick Stowl, U.S. Forest Service, Region 1 Office, Fisheries Biologist

Stephen Duke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Boise Office, Fisheries Biologist

Bill Horton, Idaho Game and Fish Department, Fisheries Biologist

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