Bull Trout Habitat Analyses Manipulated

Published Apr 8, 2003

Officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) distorted an analysis of the economic benefits of protecting the bull trout,1 a threatened trout species in the Pacific Northwest. The FWS published only the costs associated with protecting the species, while deleting a lengthy section of the report analyzing the economic benefits. Furthermore, the costs associated with protecting critical habitat for this species were inflated by including money already spent in association with the trout’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing, as well as money already spent on critical habitat protection for other endangered species that share the bull trout’s habitat.2

As part of a 2003 court settlement, the FWS was ordered to develop a plan designating critical habitat in the Pacific Northwest for the bull trout,3 which has been listed as a threatened species under the ESA since 1998. In conjunction with this effort, the FWS contracted Bioeconomics Inc., a Missoula, Montana-based consulting firm, to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of bull trout recovery in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The firm's peer-reviewed research determined that protecting bull trout and its habitat in the Columbia and Klamath River basins will cost $230 million to $300 million over the next decade. These costs were associated with adverse effects upon hydropower, logging, and highway construction. The study also reported $215 million in economic benefits associated with a restored bull trout fishery.4

When officials at the FWS released the report, however, they deleted 55 pages of the analysis outlining the economic benefits of bull trout recovery.5 The censorship spurred an anonymous FWS employee to leak a copy of the deleted chapter to the Montana-based environmental group, Alliance for the Wild Rockies. The group then released the report to The Missoulian, a Montana daily newspaper. Upon questioning from the press, Diane Katzenberger, an information officer in the FWS regional office in Denver, told a reporter that the censorship did not occur in either the Denver or Portland regional FWS offices but rather it “was a policy decision made at the Washington level.”6

Chris Nolin, chief of the division of conservation and classification at FWS headquarters in Washington, DC, told the press that the benefits analysis was cut because its methodology was discouraged by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).7 However, similar benefits analyses have been released by the Bush administration. In February 2003, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency used similar techniques that showed $113 billion in economic benefits over 10 years would result from implementation of the Bush administration’s proposed 2003 Clear Skies Act.8 Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, stated that contrary to the contention of some Bush administration officials, the methodology of the benefits analysis is largely based on solid economic projections of income from sport fishing.

The FWS press release also states “the draft economic analysis does not separate costs associated with the designation of critical habitat from those already incurred by the listing of bull trout in the Columbia and Klamath basins in 1998.” In addition to those earlier costs, the price of protective measures already put in place for endangered salmon and steelhead trout were also included.9

In September 2005, the FWS announced its critical habitat decision, designating about 3,828 miles of streams and 143,218 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana as critical habitat for the bull trout. This habitat designation represented only “scattered patches…not reflective of connected habitat” and was an 82 percent reduction from the area proposed by the agency's professional field biologists.10 Areas determined by the Secretary of the Interior where economic, security, or other “benefits of excluding the area outweighed the benefits of including it” were left out. Dave Allen, director of the FWS Pacific Region, also stated “there are many areas that already have conservation efforts in place and do not need to be designated.”11

In January 2006, two conservation groups filed a lawsuit to try and force the FWS to base the bull trout habitat designation on the available science, claiming that the FWS plan lacked the “connectivity” between streams and lakes that the fish needed for recovery.12

According to congressional testimony by former FWS Bull Trout Coordinator John Young, “none of these exclusions were based on science, and the rationale for several categories of exclusions was either unclear or illogical.” He noted that FWS staff spoke up and identified a number of exclusions as inappropriate, but that “FWS managers were overruled by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.”13

The FWS also initiated other processes that could reduce protection for the bull trout. In April 2004 the FWS announced that the agency would conduct a five-year review of the bull trout. While this review process could not derail a court-dictated decision on critical habitat designations, it could have led to change of classification or delisting for a species, and put the process to finalize recovery plans for bull trout populations on hold.14

As John Young testified, the draft five-year review indicated that the bull trout still merited its endangered species status, but the review was not released in a timely manner after its completion. The FWS even contemplated starting over with a new review. In his testimony, Young said “The inescapable perception is that policy makers in the Office of the Assistant Secretary are looking for a different result.”15

In April 2008 the FWS finally released the results of its five-year review, recommending that the bull trout retain its threatened status. The FWS also announced, though, that it would soon evaluate whether distinct populations of the trout exist that might need separate recovery plans. Commenting on this new announcement, Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies said “I think they should now focus on recovering the population to remove it from the ESA, rather than divert resources to considering if it should be listed as five distinct groups. That is a delay tactic by the Bush administration to delay recovering the bull trout.”16

  1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Regulatory Profile: Bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus).
  2. Young, J. 2007. Testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee. May 21.
  3. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Press release. 2004. Draft Economic Analysis of Critical Habitat Proposal for Bull Trout in the Columbia and Klamath River Basins Released for Public Comment. April 5.
  4. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2004. Draft Economic Analysis of Critical Habitat Designation for the Bull Trout. Draft dated March 18, 2004.
  5. Devlin, S. 2004. Economic benefits of recovery omitted from bull trout report. The Missoulian, April 16.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Harden, B. 2004. Report condemned as one-sided: government cut out benefits of saving threatened trout. San Francisco Chronicle. April 17.
  8. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2003. Clear Skies Act, 2003, Technical Support Package, Section B: Human Health and Environmental Benefits. February.
  9. FWS press release, 2004.
  10. Young 2007; Backus, P. 2006. Groups file a second lawsuit over bull trout habitat. The Missoulian, January 7.
  11. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2005. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Designates Critical Habitat For Bull Trout. Press release. September 23.
  12. Backus, 2006.
  13. Young, 2007.
  14. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2004b. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Conduct Review of Bull Trout. April 13.
  15. Young, 2007.
  16. Geranios, N.K. 2008. Bull trout to remain listed as threatened species in Lower 48. Associated Press, April 29.