Groups File Notice to Sue Over Bull Trout Recovery Plan

Legal challenge planned unless government remedies Endangered Species Act violations

By Tristan Scott

A pair of environmental groups announced Wednesday they will sue the federal government unless a recovery plan for threatened bull trout is amended to address violations of the Endangered Species Act.

The groups, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Wild Swan, filed the 60-day notice to sue a little more than a week after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife released its final Bull Trout Recovery Plan on Sept. 28.

A 60-day notice to sue under the ESA is required in order to provide enough information to the FWS so that it has the opportunity to identify and address alleged violations in order to make the plan sufficient.

The final recovery plan offers little variation from the draft plan proposed one year ago, drawing criticism from conservation groups who have been at the vanguard of legal challenges on the road toward bull trout recovery for more than two decades. They say the efforts are inadequate.

“We implore you to not make yet another mistake with this recovery plan,” according to the notice, mailed to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The notice states the groups will file suit after the 60-day period has run out “unless the violations described in this notice are remedied.”

Bull trout were listed under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened” in 1999, and the plan to recover the species is more than 15 years in the making.

Unlike other recovery plans, however, the final plan does not rely on target numbers of adult bull trout as a barometer of success, raising concerns in the conservation community that the definition of and metric for “recovery” is too liberal.

Instead of population numbers, the plan focuses on alleviating specific threats to the species’ habitat and genetic diversity, while accepting that as much as 25 percent of the trout populations will face extirpation in the face of climate change.

Michael Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the federal agency’s omission of population criteria is among the plan’s most glaring deficiencies.

“They’re essentially redefining recovery so they can list bull trout as recovered,” Garrity said. “They’ve lowered the bar so much with this plan that there is no way they can’t achieve recovery. They redefined recovery to essentially mean extinction.”

The ultimate goal of the ESA is to remove a species from the list, but a recovery plan must first be in place to ensure that once the measure’s protective umbrella is removed, management requirements are in place so that the species will not again become imperiled.

“The recovery plan is thus the lynchpin that ensures that the ultimate goal of the Act is met,” according to the notice.

The proposed plan’s overall strategy calls for widespread population distribution throughout six geographical areas in the Northwest, and would achieve that by minimizing threats from non-native fish, such as invasive lake trout, improving bull trout habitat and continuing to study the species in order to identify other stressors.