In 1997, in response to alarming population declines across the native trout's five-state home range, American Wildlands, the Madison-Gallatin Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Idaho Watersheds Project, Montana Environmental Information Center, Clearwater Biodiversity Project, and Bud Lilly petitioned the Service to list the westslope cutthroat trout as a threatened species and to designate the habitat that is critical to its survival. Today, the few scattered surviving populations are still on a downward slide due to widespread habitat destruction, hybridization with introduced species and a host of other ongoing threats.
According to Rob Ament of American Wildlands, "The best science we have is telling us that the westslope cutthroat is already functionally extinct east of the Continental Divide and quickly heading in that direction throughout the rest of its range. If we're going to bring this species back from the brink, we need the strong protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act."
Mr. Lilly is concerned that time is already running out for the fish. "I read in the newspaper this last week how a westslope cutthroat trout population was wiped out by the dewatering of a stream. There are just so few of them left. We can't allow this type of nonchalant attitude to continue, or this beautiful native is doomed. "
Even the Service has acknowledged red flags signaling that the species is in peril, but the agency contends that existing laws and regulations are sufficient to protect the westslope cutthroat. Doug Honnold of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, who is representing Lilly and the conservation groups, disagrees. "Everybody knows that these fisheries programs aren't working. They're not funded; they're not enforced; and in many cases, current laws don't even purport to address significant threats to the westslope cutthroat. What amazes us is that the Service actually admits that these programs are flawed and yet chooses to do nothing to protect the species."
Lilly and the conservation groups are concerned that haphazard preservation efforts will only offer the westslope cutthroat trout illusory protections. "The Fish and Wildlife Service is pointing to a lot of projects that are supposedly protecting the species, but in most cases, all the agency is doing is checking a box before it approves some action like a timber sale," says Tom Anacker of Trout Unlimited.
According to Rob Ament, "The great advantage of listing is that it would allow for consistent and comprehensive protection of the fish across its whole range. Right now, federal ESA protection is working for other trout species, but in this case, the agency is making a disappointing political decision to settle for nominal and voluntary measures that are completely unenforceable." Ament and the other petitioners believe that their lawsuit is necessary to force the Service to rethink its westslope cutthroat trout listing decision.
The westslope cutthroat trout, Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi, is a native subspecies of cutthroat trout indigenous to the Northern Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Idaho, northwest Wyoming, eastern Washington, and the John Day River Basin of Oregon. The trout was first collected for science by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805 and is named after the famous explorers. It was once the most widespread and numerous trout in the region. It is an indicator of cold, clean water and is sensitive to changes in environmental conditions. Its collapse is a result of widespread destruction and modification of its habitat. Other threats include: hybridization with introduced fish species, competition with, as well as predation by non-native fish, dams, water removal for irrigation, and disease.