From the US Fish and Wildlife Service: As part of a broad effort to recover the threatened bull trout, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed today to reintroduce this native fish species to the upper Clackamas River. A public comment period on the proposal is open until February 8, 2010. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service are cooperators in the proposed project.
The reintroduced fish would be designated as a “nonessential experimental” population, under the Endangered Species Act. This classification precludes anyone who accidentally kills or harms the fish from being in violation of the law, provided that this happens as part of an otherwise lawful activity. Federal projects will not be altered or stopped to protect these fish, and sport fishing in accordance with Oregon regulations would not result in a violation of the Endangered Species Act if a bull trout was harmed.
“For thousands of years bull trout were present in the Clackamas River,” said Robyn Thorson, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “After evolving there and existing all that time they were eliminated by human activities; reintroducing them will provide another solid step in our recovery strategy for the species.”
The boundaries of the proposed experimental nonessential population would include the entire Clackamas River as well as the Willamette River from Willamette Falls downstream to where it meets the Columbia River, including Multnomah Channel. Recent surveys have determined that bull trout currently do not exist in the area, and it is thought highly unlikely that they could re-colonize the area on their own due to geographic distance to other existing bull trout populations.
The last documented bull trout observation in the Clackamas River drainage was in 1963. Their elimination was likely caused by many of the same factors that led to the decline of the bull trout across its range, including migration barriers from hydroelectric and diversion dams, direct and incidental harvest in sport and commercial fisheries, targeted eradication through bounty fisheries, and habitat and water quality degradation from forest management and agricultural activities not in accordance with best management practices.
A detailed feasibility assessment completed by the agencies in 2007 determined that this reintroduction is biologically possible. The best candidate for bull trout donor stock was found to be the Metolius River, a tributary of the Deschutes River in central Oregon.
If a public hearing request is received on this proposal, in writing, within 45 days of the proposal’s publication in the Federal Register, one will be held at a location and time to be determined. If a hearing is to be held, it will be publicized on the USFWS Bull Trout Reintroduction Page.
We are also seeking comment on the draft environmental assessment (EA), prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act, which analyzes the potential environmental impacts associated with the proposed reintroduction. The draft EA can be viewed on the internet at this link.
Bull trout are protected as a threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species Act throughout their U.S. range, which includes parts of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Nevada. The draft recovery strategy for bull trout was developed over a three-year period with involvement from more than 120 stakeholder states, tribes, watershed councils, and representatives of industry and conservation groups.
Bull trout are members of the char subgroup of the salmon family, which also includes the Dolly Varden, lake trout, and Arctic char. They can grow to more than 30 pounds in lakes, but in streams rarely exceed 4 pounds. They have small, pale yellow to crimson spots on a darker background, which ranges from olive green to brown above, fading to white on the belly. Historically bull trout occurred throughout the Columbia River Basin, east to western Montana, south to the Jarbidge River in northern Nevada, the Klamath Basin in Oregon, the McCloud River in California and north to Alberta, British Columbia, and possibly southeastern Alaska. Today bull trout are still widely distributed but they have declined in overall distribution and abundance. Small bull trout eat terrestrial and aquatic insects but shift to preying on other fish as they grow larger.
Q. Why choose the Clackamas River for this proposal?
The Clackamas was considered for reintroduction even before the bull trout was listed as threatened, in years of discussion between the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. With these two key partners already exploring the possibility, and the need expressed in the bull trout recovery plan, it was logical to continue exploring the idea. There are other appropriate locations for bull trout reintroduction, and accomplishing this reintroduction will gain knowledge and experience that can be applied elsewhere. From the bull trout’s perspective, the Clackamas is a good candidate because bull trout haven’t been documented there since about 1963; the factors which caused them to disappear have been remedied, and about 70 miles of the upper river and tributaries contain suitable habitat for bull trout spawning and rearing.
Q. How can a “nonessential” population contribute to recovery?
A nonessential experimental population would contribute to the recovery of the bull trout in the Willamette Basin, but it is not essential to the survival of the species in the wild. The designation allows for greater flexibility in managing other land uses and human activities, without the usual level of protections being given to individuals of the reintroduced species. The designation of nonessential experimental populations [through Section 10(j)] was added to the Endangered Species Act in 1982 by Congress in order to increase the public’s tolerance for putting a protected species back into an area where it had been previously.
Q. Would the agencies later want to change the nonessential population to an “essential” designation?
It is not likely that the Fish and Wildlife Service would propose to change the nonessential experimental population classification. Any changes that might become necessary would occur in cooperation with the State of Oregon and other affected parties and would require another federal rule-making process. The only likely change would be if the species recovers and is removed from the list of threatened and endangered species, in which case the “nonessential experimental population” designation would be eliminated as part of the delisting.
Q. Would bull trout negatively impact salmon and steelhead in the Clackamas River?
A. Like many other native fish in the Clackamas River, bull trout will eat juvenile salmon and steelhead. They also will eat other fish which would have eaten juvenile salmon and steelhead. These predator/prey dynamics are complex, and despite the fact these species evolved together, it is uncertain whether bull trout would have a negative, positive, or neutral effect on today’s salmon and steelhead populations. Because of this, the agencies are seeking to understand the potential impacts before making the decision to propose the reintroduction. A panel of expert scientists met in July 2008 to investigate potential bull trout effects on salmon and steelhead in the Clackamas River and to develop associated monitoring and management recommendations. Results from the workshop suggest the overall probability of extinction to salmon and steelhead in the Clackamas River from a successful bull trout reintroduction would be very low to moderately low. While the workshop provided an estimate of impact from expert scientists, actual baseline monitoring and evaluation in the Clackamas River prior to and following a reintroduction of bull trout would provide the data necessary to inform management options including reversing the reintroduction action if impacts are greater than anticipated
Q. Where in the Clackamas River would the fish be reintroduced?
They would be released into historical bull trout habitat in the upper Clackamas River above the confluence with the Collawash River. This reach contains the most suitable habitat for reintroductions.
Q. When might these fish be put into the Clackamas?
The reintroduction could begin in 2010 or 2011. Transfers would continue annually for the first phase of the reintroduction (approximately 7 years). Transfers of fish in phase two (years 8 through 15) would be contingent on the success of phase one.
Q. How many bull trout would be moved?
The proposed action includes the direct transfer of multiple life stages of bull trout from the Metolius River to the Clackamas River. Although current abundance of the donor stock would support more, we currently propose 30 adults, 30 subadults (more than two years old but not of reproductive age), 1,000 juveniles (age one and two years) and up to 10,000 fry annually at the onset of the project. The numbers and life stages of fish transferred annually will be linked strongly to the annual population size of the donor stock, as well as to information derived from monitoring and evaluating the success of the various life stages of the reintroduced fish over the initial years of the project.