U.S. Officials Seek Comments on Bull Trout
Bush administration officials Wednesday said they will reconsider a decision last year that removed 90 percent of the proposed critical habitat for threatened bull trout across the Columbia and Klamath river basins.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a written announcement said officials are seeking additional public comment for a re-evaluation of critical habitat for the fish. But two conservation groups denounced the move as an attempt to avoid review by a federal judge in an ongoing lawsuit.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Wild Swan have sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, alleging that officials ignored legal requirements and the recommendations of agency scientists.
In 2002, federal biologists proposed as critical habitat more than 18,000 miles of rivers and streams and 530,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. The final rule issued in October amounted to roughly 10 percent of that: about 1,700 miles of streams and 61,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs.
Critical habitat designations are significant because they force managers of federal lands to consult with wildlife biologists on projects such as timber sales or livestock grazing plans that could harm protected species or their habitat.
Assistant Secretary of Interior Craig Manson last year said that bull trout benefit from protections already in place for salmon and other wildlife. He said the government does not need to expand critical habitat for species if existing measures supply needed protections, or if the costs outweigh the benefits.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said that because of the extent of lands excluded in the final rule, the agency had decided to give the public more opportunity to comment.
"If we are going to make any changes, or if we are going to provide additional explanation of the exclusions, we hope to do it by September 15," said Joan Jewett.
Arlene Montgomery with the Montana-based Friends of the Wild Swan said the agency is trying to evade judgment of its actions by the U.S. District Court in Portland, where her group is challenging the government. The Fish and Wildlife Service has a motion pending with the court seeking permission to revise the critical habitat rule.
"I believe they should have allowed the judge to at least rule on their motion before going ahead with something like this," Montgomery said.
"We think it's just a delaying tactic," said Michael Garrity of Alliance for the Wild Rockies in Helena, Mont. "They've been gathering information for years; it's time to start recovering the species."
Jewett said the agency is seeking public comment now to hasten rather than delay action. "If it was a stall tactic, we could just sit and wait for the court to make a decision," she said. "We're saying we want to address this in a timely manner and think it serves the public and the resource best to open a comment period now."
The agency's announcement called for comment on the costs and benefits likely to accrue from critical habitat, as well as information on the habitat needs of bull trout.
The government contact for comments is John Young, bull trout coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ecological Services, 911 N.E. 11th Ave., Portland, OR 97232; fax 503-231-6243; or e-mail R1BullTroutCH@fws.gov.
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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News