Logging Company Permitted to Take Endangered Trout

KALISPELL, Montana, May 20, 2003 (ENS) - A 30 year permit to take endangered species as part of a logging progam has been approved on a portion of the largest Habitat Conservation Plan ever granted in the United States. The logging company which won the permit may run into resistance from environmentalists critical of timber harvesting activities that would degrade streams inhabited by bull trout, federally listed as an endangered species.

Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) have become popular tools used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enforce the Endangered Species Act. As of April 10, 541 HCPs have been approved, covering approximately 38 million acres and protecting more than 525 endangered or threatened species.

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Bull trout populations have declined throughout their range. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
"Most of our major field offices have HCP programs in place," says Tim Bodurtha, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, and supervisor at the Kalispell, Montana sub-office. "I supervised HCPs out of our Lacy, Washington, office and had a staff of eight people." Most major timber companies and many smaller ones have HCPs in place.

Habitat Conservation Plans allow private landowners to conduct lawful activities and remain in compliance with the Endangered Species Act, says Bodurtha. "It allows them to go forward with forest management activities with the idea that there will be long term conservation of endangered species that are on the property."

Any private landowner can apply for an incidental take permit. Take is defined in the Endangered Species Act as activities that "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect any threatened or endangered species." Harm may include significant habitat modification that "kills or injures a listed species through impairment of essential behavior like nesting or reproduction."

Part of the application process includes the submission of a Habitat Conservation Plan with the goal of insuring that the species covered by the plan will be protected for the duration of permit. The landowner and Fish & Wildlife then negotiate the specific terms and conditions.

The permit was issued to Stimson Lumber, an Oregon based company that bought 28,385 acres of land in Montana, Idaho and Utah already covered by an Incidental Take Permit issued in 2000 for the Plum Creek Lumber Company.

At 1.4 million acres, the Plum Creek Native Fish Habitat Conservation Plan is the largest ever allowed by the Fish and Wildlife Service

Stimson Lumber applied for an Incidental Take Permit on March 21 for its 28,385 acres of these lands, submitting a slightly modified version of the Plum Creek Habitat Conservation Plan. Stimson was not required to write a new plan for its portion of the Plum Creek lands.

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A Stimson mechanical harvester at work (Photo Stimson Lumber Company)
The permit was approved April 24 by the Fish and Wildlife Service for five fish species, including the listed bull trout and another, the Westslope cutthroat trout, currently under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

An advantage to the company, Bodurtha says, is that if the Westslope cutthroat trout is listed next year, Stimson will not have to change the conservation measures already in place. "That's why they want to do the HCP. They get the certainty from Fish and Wildlife that they won't have to do more than they are already. Of course, that assumes they are in compliance with the implementation of conservation measures."

Historically, the bull trout lived throughout the Columbia River basin and in many Western states. Today this trout species has been eliminated from the main stems of most large rivers, with the main populations still remaining in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Fish and Wildlife Service documents portray bull trout as sensitive to increased water temperatures, poor water quality and low flow conditions. Land management activities have degraded stream habitat to the point where these trout no longer successfully reproduce.

Not everyone thinks that the Plum Creek HCP has the best interests of the fish in mind. David Bayles, executive director of Pacific Rivers Council based in Eugene, Oregon, filed an intent to sue last year against the Plum Creek plan.

"Plum Creek's incidental take permit was based on a lot of wishful thinking and not a lot of habitat protection," Bayles says. "Our basic complaint is that Fish and Wildlife agreed to a plan that was all promises and no protection. Our view is that that is illegal. If you're going to get a permit to harm enlisted species, you need to guarantee the protections that you're offering up in trade."

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Fisherman holds his catch, a bull trout. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Bodurtha thinks the Plum Creek HCP is a good one, but says he has not met with Bayles. "It seemed clear they wanted to avoid litigation, but we need to hear what their concerns are. Maybe some of it is that we didn't do good enough documentation to explain everything."

Although Bodurtha recently hired two full time people and purchased field equipment and vehicles to monitor the Plum Creek HCP, the supervisor admits that funding for compliance enforcement is on shaky ground.

"We have the responsibility to monitor these HCPs, and we have some level of funding," he said. "But that level is not going to be adequate to address all the land that we have to cover, especially in states like Washington where we have been doing them for a while."

Bodurtha does not know of any HCP that has ever been revoked for non-compliance, but he has been involved in conflicts during the negotiation phase. "We've had a couple where our negotiations went in what I call fits and starts. When you start, it's fine. But then we run into delays, and we wait for a period of time before we get back together."

Last week the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a legal document known as a Biological Opinion stating that the Rock Creek Mine proposed by Sterling Corporation on federal land beneath Montana's Cabinet Mountains would likely impact the bull trout subpopulation in the Cabinet River Gorge but would have little impact on long term bull trout recovery efforts.

Bayles, who is involved in litigation over the Rock Creek Mine plan, sees a connection between the two decisions. "The tie between the two is that Fish and Wildlife is issuing too many permits on sensitive critters. I think it's shocking for a federal agency responsible for a listed species to say that."