Friday, February 26, 2010

When's a bull trout not a bull trout?

When it makes life a little more challenging for a high-desert cattleman, apparently.

A rancher in the Little Lost Valley of east-central Idaho says he's on the verge of challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's efforts to protect bull trout in the Little Lost River because, he says, the bull trout isn't native to the drainage. He might be right--it's possible that bull trout were transplanted to the Little Lost from the nearby Pahsimeroi River over a century ago by Nelson's predacessors in the valley. It's also possible that bull trout from the Pahsimeroi ended up in the Little Lost thanks to some ancient geologic event that separated the two rivers that were, at one time, presumably connected.

The rancher, Garrett Nelson, has some anecdotal support for his claims from local fisheries biologists who concede the former of the two theories is likely correct. Early pioneers to the Little Lost Valley likely put bull trout in their own river because, as was historically the case with other streams in the Idaho Sinks (Big Lost River, Birch Creek, etc.), trout weren't native. Only mountain whitefish were present. Bull trout were introduced likely as a source of food, and certainly as a source of recreation.

And Nelson's predacessors weren't too picky. Today, the river and its tributaries hold bull trout, rainbow trout, brook trout and holdover whitefish. It's a great recreational fishery, and its upper reaches flow through some of the area's most beautiful alpine country.

Nelson's big complaint? The presence of the federally protected bull trout hinder his and others' ranching capability. Because of the bull trout present in the system--and they're there in good numbers in the pristine headwaters of the river--he has to move his cattle off the range earlier than he would like and then provide hay for feed while the bull trout are spawning.

In recent years, any astute angler has come to the conclusion that grazing, while certainly a worthy use of public lands in moderation, can be detrimental to trout water if cows are allowed to linger and wallow. For ranchers, moving cattle on public leases is simply good practice--the fact that ranchers have had to remove cows from the river at certain times has, from an anecdotal perspective anyway, helped the Little Lost River on its public land reaches. If we, as anglers, have the "exotic" bull trout to thank for that, so be it.

I realize ranching and grazing is a historical use of public lands in the West, and in the Little Lost in particular. But it's not the only historic use. The area is well-loved by folks who fish, folks who hike (the ascent to Mill Creek Lake is remarkable) and folks who ride their ORVs and motorbikes on legal trails in the area. It is public land, after all. If we can thank Nelson's forefathers for introducing bull trout to the drainage and creating this wonder recreational resource, think how ironic it would be for the land to become less valuable to all others by the same folks who helped make it what it is today.

Weird juxtoposition, I suppose. But from a recreational fishing standpoint, the introduced trout in the Little Lost--bull trout or otherwise--deserve better. Let's keep it like it is. I, for one, am more than happy to pretend the bull trout in the Little Lost are there thanks to the whims of nature. But I'm just as happy to pretend Nelson's late neighbors in the drainage plopped the fish in the river so they, like us, might be able to spend a day with their kids casting for wild trout in a great place.

Bull trout--all bull trout--deserve federal protection thanks to their precarious condition these days. 

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Public lands grazing is acceptable in moderation (where appropriate and when well-managed), but the days of grazing interests trumping all other public land uses needs to come to an end.