Bull Trout Decline Presents Stark Choices in a Changing Climate

Land managers face conundrum of what to save and what to sacrifice

By Stephen Miller

October 25, 2017


Photo by mlharing/iStock

There are many reasons why a dirt road in Montana’s Flathead National Forest would collapse into the creek below: freeze and thaw cycles, heavy rains, passing logging vehicles, or everyday erosion. One particular washout in 2014, which occurred about 3.5 miles up Sullivan Creek from Hungry Horse Reservoir, destroyed a road needed to maintain upstream culverts, and piled debris in a critical bull trout spawning stream. This may seem benign, but to conservation groups, the fact that the creek has not been cleared more than three years later is proof that the federal agencies charged with restoring threatened habitat have misplaced their priorities.

“We know what we have to do. They just refuse to do it. They want to delay, delay, delay, because frankly, the longer they delay the less bull trout there are going to be,” said Steve Kelly of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. 

Over the past two decades, Kelly and others have engaged in a near-constant struggle to protect bull trout, which were added to the endangered-species list in 1998 after six years of pressure from conservation groups. Today, the effects of climate change exacerbate the perils already facing threatened animals, and resources for protection are limited. The bull trout now serves as an early example of a new reality: The people charged with protecting what remains must make difficult decisions about what can be saved and what will be sacrificed.

The bull trout is named for its large head and hooked lower jaw. The fish vary with their habitat, but they tend to be a large, spotted fish, olive in color, with white-edged fins. Like salmon, their bellies are lighter than their tops, and they take on a brilliant vermilion when spawning.

They’re finicky, preferring the clearest and coldest water of all salmonids. Environmental changes—collapsed banks, dams, or increasing water temperatures—have an immediate impact on their numbers.

Bull trout were once common from California to the Bering Sea. Today, they are extinct in California, show up only in the Jarbridge River of northeastern Nevada, and have a tentative hold in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. 

The effort to protect the species has historically centered on the effects of logging and mining, and events like the washout on Sullivan Creek. Lately, however, climate change has emerged as a significant threat by warming water temperatures in streams and rivers throughout the West.

“People have been worried about climate issues for 20 years now,” said Dan Isaak, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “Once we began to see actual warming trends, people got more and more worried about it.” Advancements in stream-monitoring technology have helped Isaak and his team build NorWest, a robust database that tracks water quality in thousands of western waterways. Ecologists have used its information to model future climate scenarios and forecast where cold-water species like bull trout and salmon will be at risk. Those models now inform efforts to protect threatened habitats. 

Knowing which populations stand the greatest or least chance of survival, however, presents land managers with a unique conundrum.

Erica Maltz is the fisheries director for the Burns Paiute Tribe of eastern Oregon. She believes that, even though the tribe is located at the southern edge of bull trout range, with a limited population isolated by impassable dams on the Snake River, it does not make sense for agencies to put available habitat recovery money somewhere else, because of the tribe’s cultural ties to the fish and its leadership in implementing recovery actions. 

New climate projections support this dire reality. In February, the Upper Snake River Tribes—a coalition that includes the Burns Paiute, Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone, Shoshone-Bannock of the Fort Hall Reservation, and Shoshone-Paiute of the Duck Valley Reservation tribes—released a sweeping climate vulnerability assessment. “Tribal members have already noticed changes in precipitation patterns, increasing temperatures, and shifts in species and habitats,” it states. 

These changes have resulted in longer wildfire seasons, less winter snowfall, earlier spring run-off, lower summer stream flows, and higher water temperatures that favor weeds and invasive species. Future climate models predict most of these issues will persist or worsen in the coming decades. Significantly for bull trout, snowpack, which provides streams with cool water in spring, is expected to diminish. 

Tribes and agencies have worked together to mitigate these threats for years, but their priorities do not always align. In 2015, the USFWS released a plan for recovery of bull trout across the West that identified large geographic regions in which the trout are present and core zones that hold spawning and rearing waters. Rather than set population increase goals to measure success, however, it identifies threats to habitat and requires land managers to address 75 percent of those in a region to allow for the species’ removal from the endangered list. Somehow, the plan for recovery of a threatened species allows for the loss of 25 percent of that species. Some conservationists refer to it as an “extinction plan.” 

Under the plan, bull trout in one stream could lose their protected status and associated funding for rehabilitation because a portion of threats were addressed in another. “It’s a dire situation here, but because of how we’re lumped in this recovery planning process, we would risk being delisted before we reached any demographic recovery,” Maltz said. Several tribes and conservation groups have filed complaints for this reason. 

The reality is that some waterways simply won’t be able to support bull trout in the future, said Isaak, who works with land managers to help them understand the risks. “It’s really hard for people to walk away from those systems,” he said, and most tend to double down on protecting what remains. At their best, the models he helps produce can aid managers in making informed decisions to do the most good for the species as a whole. 

For the region’s tribes, who have lived on the land for more than 10,000 years, protecting the species isn’t a numbers game—it’s a struggle to maintain an important cultural link. “We can’t pick up and move, so regardless of what the projections are for stream temperatures, we want to continue to do good work in this area,” Maltz said.

Throughout the Columbia River basin, tribes are leveraging their expertise and funding to protect habitat. In the Idaho panhandle, climate change is just the latest threat to bull trout, which the Kalispel tribe has been struggling to protect for years.

“These are the only resources we have that are adjacent to the reservation, so we’re going to do everything we can to protect them,” said Joe Maroney, director of fishery and water resources for the Kalispel Tribe. The tribe, which has about 450 members, employs a staff of 46 in its natural resources department; Maroney estimates that over the next 30 years, it will spend a quarter of a billion dollars on fish habitat restoration in the Pend Oreille system. Most of the funding comes from an agreement between tribes and the Bonneville Power Administration—recompense for the impacts of its dams.

Much of the work centers around restoring passage between spawning tributaries and the cold waters of Lake Pend Oreille, where a world record 32-pound bull trout was caught back in 1947. The lynchpin, Maroney said, is the Albeni Falls Dam, which sits just inside the Idaho border from Washington and blocks fish movement to the lake. As the waters of the Pend Oreille River warm west of the dam, the lake offers a cold-water refuge, but only if fish can access it. 

Because cold water is so important to bull trout, the tribe has been working with a coalition that includes researchers from the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey to understand what they call cold-water patches, or refuges. These can be anything from a small pool in a stream to a larger stretch of river or layer of cool water in a deep lake. They are essential to the lives of cold-water fish, especially during the heat of mid-summer.

With a better understanding of where these refuges tend to be, and how they are maintained, the tribe can focus its habitat restoration efforts. Barriers to cool, clear water have been removed, straightened rivers have been returned to their natural meandering paths, and tens of thousands of trees have been planted to shade critical pools and streams. 

These efforts give bull trout a fighting chance, but the harsh reality, perhaps made clear from the lackluster recovery plan, is that the bull trout is not a species on which a large number of people depend. Due to its threatened status, it has not been fished for decades and has therefore remained off the tables of even those who had previously relied on it. Salmon, on the other hand, is an economic as well as cultural focus for communities throughout the Pacific Northwest, and in the coming years, that’s where this issue is likely to come to a head.

The original publication of this article inaccurately represented the views of Erica Maltz regarding the challenges in conserving bull trout populations. The article has been amended since publication.