In response to a lawsuit brought by a coalition of conservation groups, a federal judge in Colorado ruled Friday, December 17 that the US Fish and Wildlife Service improperly denied protection for the Yellowstone cutthroat trout under the Endangered Species Act.
Judge Phillip Figa of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado found the Fish and Wildlife Service illegally rejected a petition from conservation groups requesting the Yellowstone cutthroat trout be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The court ruled the petition “presented substantial scientific and commercial information indicating that listing of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout as a threatened species may be warranted.” The judge ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider the request by the conservation groups to grant federal Endangered Species protection to the Yellowstone cutthroat trout.
“This is a huge victory for the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, an important icon of our western natural heritage,” said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Fish and Wildlife Service turned their back on science and the court rightly turned them around.”
Yellowstone cutthroat’s range once included portions of southern Montana, northwestern Wyoming, southeastern Idaho, and northern Nevada and Utah. They have been eliminated from roughly 90% of this historic range by a combination of habitat degradation and replacement by non-native trout. Despite significant population declines and habitat loss, in 2001 the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected a 1998 petition to protect the Yellowstone cutthroat under the Endangered Species Act.
“The Yellowstone cutthroat trout is a fish that at least 42 other species throughout the northern Rockies rely upon as a food source, including the grizzly bear, bald eagle, white pelican, otter, black bear, mink, osprey and loon. There is no doubt that this fish plays a key role in contributing to the overall health of the all the wild species in and around Yellowstone and that’s why we’re working to protect and recover them,” said Greenwald.
In its decision rejecting listing for the Yellowstone cutthroat, the Fish and Wildlife Service relied on the promises of a voluntary and unenforceable Conservation Agreement that had been entered into between the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The court rejected reliance on future and promised actions that may or may not be implemented and effective.
“Conservation happens on the ground, not on paper,” said Earthjustice attorney Mike Harris. “The Fish and Wildlife Service unlawfully bought into the state’s ‘wait and see’ approach to conservation, which has done nothing to rescue fish, plants, and wildlife from the brink of extinction.”
The court also found the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by inviting comments on the listing petition only from state and federal agencies. According to the Endangered Species Act, the service is required to solicit comments from scientists, educational institutions, and the public in general before determining whether to protect fish, plants, or wildlife under the Endangered species Act. Judge Figa ruled, “FWS [Fish and Wildlife Service] is required to consult not just with these [federal and state] entities, but with all parties with relevant information before a determination is made.” The Judge further stated, “An implicit assumption of the Endangered Species Act is that going through the right processes helps to ensure the right result.”
“Protecting fish, plants, and wildlife under the Endangered Species Act is about working with all interested parties, not a select few,” said Jeremy Nichols with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “The fact that the Fish and Wildlife Service subverted the public process only underscores how outrageously illegal the decision not to protect the Yellowstone cutthroat trout under the Endangered Species Act was.”
The groups filing suit include the Center for Biological Diversity, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Pacific Rivers Council, and Ecology Center, and were represented by Earthjustice.
More Information on the Yellowstone cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki bouvieri):
Historic Range: The historic range of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, including the fine-spotted Snake River cutthroat, consisted of the upper portions of the Yellowstone and Snake Rivers (above Shoshone Falls, ID) in the Missouri River and Columbia River basins. The range encompassed large portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, with small portions of Utah and Nevada and two now-extinct isolated populations in Waha Lake, ID and Crab Creek, WA.
Habitat requirements: Like most members of the trout family, Yellowstone cutthroat trout require clear, cold water, naturally fluctuating flows, low levels of fine sediment in channel bottoms, well-distributed pools, stable stream banks and abundant stream cover.
Current population status: Today, genetically pure Yellowstone cutthroat trout exist in only a small fraction of the subspecies’ former range. Current occupied habitat within the historic range is estimated to be as low as 10 percent. In lakes, this subspecies has fared better and is still found in about 85 percent of its lake habitat, though this amounts to less than 100,000 acres. Eighty to 90 percent of the subspecies’ current habitat exists on national forests.
Threats to continued persistence: In the past, Yellowstone cutthroat trout declined due to over harvest, habitat degradation and fragmentation from logging, livestock grazing, road construction, mining, and water diversions, as well as competition and predation by non-native trout. Many of the current threats are the same; water diversions for irrigation of agricultural fields, livestock grazing, road construction, and competition from non-natives. The discovery of nonnative, predatory lake trout in the Yellowstone Lake stronghold and whirling disease in streams around Yellowstone Lake represent significant new threats to Yellowstone cutthroats.