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Climate Change Hero

Climate Change Blog

  • 28
  • April
  • 2016


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Enviros Allege FWS Ignored Climate Change in Bull Trout Recovery Plan

Two Montana environmental groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on April 19, 2016, complaining among other things that the Service’s recovery plan for bull trout, a cold-water species in the Pacific Northwest protected under the Endangered Species Act, ignores the effects of climate change and wrongfully plans for the demise of many bull trout populations, not their recovery.1

More than any other freshwater salmon or trout species in the Western United States, bull trout require cold pristine water to survive, particularly when spawning and rearing. Although the Service did not consider climate change a factor when it listed bull trout under the ESA in 1999, the recovery plan, released in September 2015, discussed potential climate change effects, including smaller mountain snowpacks and earlier, heavier snowmelts that flood and scour spawning gravels and result in lower and warmer late summer streamflows. Bull trout have difficulty surviving in these warmer waters.

Recovery plans are supposed to lay out the government’s strategy for going on the offensive, describing those actions necessary to recover and ultimately de-list the species. Here, the Service’s plan is to pour resources where the most gains are likely to be won, conceding the loss of weak areas. The plaintiffs claim the Service cannot support its decision to allow the loss of some weak areas, and the plaintiffs want the Service to press forward on all fronts, protecting and preserving the strong and the weak areas alike.

In particular, the Service’s recovery plan focuses on minimizing threats from non-native fish and improving bull trout habitat, but it does not lay out a strategy for addressing the effects of climate change in all the core areas where bull trout reside. The Service says that because not all existing core areas must be preserved to meet recovery goals, the Service chooses to focus on genetic diversity, habitat, and other population needs in areas it believes will be able to best maintain cold-water conditions in the face of expected climate warming. The Service acknowledges that climate change might cause the extirpation of bull trout from some existing core areas, and its goals reflect that loss: under the plan, the Service will manage threats in at least 75 percent of core areas (covering at least 75 percent of local populations) in four of the six total recovery units.

Plaintiffs decry this decision, calling it an “extinction plan” because it allows up to 25 percent of these four recovery units to be extirpated without explaining why that extirpation does not irretrievably foreclose future recovery opportunities, especially when, according to plaintiffs, there are opportunities for the Service to work to maintain the natural hydrologic and ecologic mechanisms that can help preserve these cold-water habitats in the face of climate change. The two Montana environmental groups suing, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Inc., and Friends of the Wild Swan, Inc., are both seasoned combatants on these types of ESA issues, having sued the Service no less than seven times since the mid-1990s to, among other things, force the Service to list the bull trout, designate bull trout critical habitat, and then revamp the bull trout recovery plan.

The Service’s recovery plan also relies on principles of adaptive management to address potential future climate change effects that the Service says are not yet completely understood or fully predictable. The plaintiffs castigate this wait-and-see framework as vaguely defined and lacking in protocols.

The Service may have the upper ground on these two claims, since courts typically defer to agency expertise and scientific judgment, and plaintiffs must show the Service’s decisions were arbitrary and capricious. This is a high bar, particularly when there is some scientific uncertainty. However, the Service may have given short shrift to comments submitted in response to the draft recovery plan on these issues, and it may not have adequately supported its conclusions that loss of up to 25 percent of local bull trout populations in four recovery units, induced by climate change, will not lead to inbreeding and loss of genetic variation and thereby thwart recovery efforts.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Inc., and the Friends of the Wild Swan, Inc.’s lawsuit is filed in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon.

Plaintiffs raise a number of other concerns with the recovery plan, such as the Service’s failure to use numerical targets for bull trout populations or habitat metrics for assessing population status. The aggregate result, plaintiffs say, is a lowering of the “recovery” bar in violation of the ESA.


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Brandon M. Tuck

Brandon M. Tuck Senior Associate