Klamath bull trout in need of the most help

Klamath bull trout in need of the most help
Saving the species in Klamath watersheds will require several mitigation actions
Herald & News

September 13, 2014

Comment deadline Dec. 3

The public has 90 days to comment on the revised bull trout recovery draft, and then another draft will be issued. The initial public comment period will close Dec. 3. Comments can be mailed or hand-delivered to Bull Trout Recovery, Idaho Fish and Wildlife Office, 1387 S. Vinnell Way, Room 368, Boise, ID, 83709; by fax to 208-378–5262; or emailed to fw1bulltroutrecoveryplan@fws.gov.

The agency expects to publish a final recovery plan in fall 2015.

A new draft recovery plan for threatened bull trout calls for less focus on population benchmarks and more focus on habitat restoration. Local wildlife officials say restoring bull trout in the Klamath Recovery Unit will require every resource available.

“We need all of our existing populations and more. We need to expand the number of streams occupied and expand distribution,” Nolan Banish, a fish biologist for the Klamath Falls U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), said.

According to Banish, the Klamath unit is the most imperiled of the Northwest’s six recovery units.

“They are doing the poorest here,” he said.

The Klamath Recovery Unit has three core areas: Upper Klamath Lake, Sycan River and Upper Sprague River. Only eight of the original 17 known Klamath populations still exist, according to the plan.

Bull trout were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in Klamath in 1998, prior to range-wide listing in 1999. The species historically existed throughout the upper Klamath Basin and was known to live as far downstream as Keno. At least 40 percent of historical Basin bull trout populations have been eliminated.

Remnant regional populations now occur in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Nevada — bull trout populations that once inhabited California streams have been completely eliminated.

According to the USFWS draft recovery plan, the agency changed its focus from meeting numerical population benchmarks to restoring habitat for populations that appeared the likeliest to recover and letting others go. Plan documents said information indicating the potential for negative climate change effects guided some decision making: Bull trout have extremely limited temperature tolerances — optimal growth and feeding occurs around 60 degrees Fahrenheit or less. USFWS documents said wildlife officials expect cold water habitat to diminish over the next 50 to 100 years as the effects of climate change become more intense, likely resulting in a reduction of bull trout habitat.

Banish said the biggest threats facing bull trout in the Klamath unit are habitat degradation and fragmentation, and exotic species like brook trout. He said brook trout have proliferated since the early 20th century when states began stocking the fish in Northwest streams.

“They occupy a lot of places we would like to get bull trout back into,” Banish said.

Decreased connectivity between populations and encroaching bull trout have forced several bull trout populations to reside in only headwater habitat, the plan said. According to Bill Tinniswood, assistant fish biologist for the Klamath Falls Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office, bull trout in Long Creek, east of Fourmile Lake, have faced off against brook trout for several years. Officials have tried several mitigation techniques, but threats to bull trout in the creek are still high, he said.

Tinniswood said he believes the plan’s recommendation of developing at least seven new bull trout populations by removing brook trout is feasible, but in some streams, removing brook trout from some populations is impossible.

“Some streams are too complex to treat,” Tinniswood said.

Historic land-use practices that have fragmented and altered streams are the two main causes of bull trout habitat degradation in the Klamath unit, Banish said. Brown trout also inhabit several Basin streams, but little is known about interactions between bull and brown trout.

Craig Bienz, director of the Sycan Marsh for The Nature Conservancy, noted that restoration is a long-term process, but if populations increase, fish size may also increase, making the species more resilient to environmental stress and likely to produce more offspring.

In the six years Banish has been with the Klamath Falls USFWS, he said the agency and its partners have documented range expansion and taken several steps to safeguard bull trout from invasive brook trout.

“It’s been many steps — some big, some small — in that amount of time,” he said.

Banish called ridding Klamath streams of brook trout a “daunting task.”