On behalf of five conservation groups and fishing legend Bud Lilly, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit today asking the Federal District Court to compel the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to consider protection for the imperiled westslope cutthroat trout. The groups - American Wildlands, Madison-Gallatin Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Idaho Watersheds Project, Montana Environmental Information Center, Clearwater Biodiversity Project - and Lilly submitted a petition to list this Northern Rockies native trout as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in June 1997. To date, USFWS has done nothing with the petition and the groups are no longer willing to accept inaction by the federal agency.
"A major cause for the decline of the westslope cutthroat trout is the wholesale neglect of federal and state management agencies. Sadly, without this lawsuit, this inattention would continue," stated Jeff Larmer, executive director of American Wildlands.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the USFWS is obligated to review the petition within 90 days to determine whether it presents substantial scientific and commercial information demonstrating that the westslope cutthroat trout warrants listing as a threatened species. Although the 90-day period expired over six months ago, the USFWS has never reviewed the petition.
"This is the first step in the process, and yet the Fish and Wildlife Service has failed miserably to even lift its foot," chided Bud Lilly. "Where I come from, they call that lazy."
"The law requires the FWS to look at the information in the petition and make a preliminary decision," said Doug Honnold, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "It's a shame we have to go to court just to make them read it."
After the groups filed the original petition, they updated it with additional information in January of 1998 such that it now contains 91 pages of material, an 18-page bibliography, and 20 appendices. This thorough documentation details the ongoing threats to the westslope cutthroat trout's survival.
"There is so much new scientific evidence that the westslope cutthroat trout is in trouble, it is alarming that the Fish and Wildlife Service won't do anything," said Tom Anacker of the Madison-Gallatin Chapter of Trout Unlimited. "Without the legal and habitat protections afforded the westslope cutthroat trout by its listing as a threatened species under the ESA, the WCT will continue its downward spiral towards extinction."
The westslope cutthroat trout, Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi, is a native subspecies of cutthroat trout indigenous to the Northern Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Idaho, northern 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 once was 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 and competition with introduced species; dams; water removal for irrigation; and disease.