A Million Strong and Bull Trout
by Roger Phillips
Any fishing trip in which you catch a glimpse of one of Idaho's wild chinook salmon makes a weekend. We were deep in the backcountry and saw a chinook swimming in an upper tributary. It was probably one of the last spawners of the season.
LONG LIVE THE KING
It was a large male chinook that bore battle wounds that would never heal. His life was coming to an end, but it also defied the odds.
He hatched from an egg somewhere in the river system, survived the perils of early life that claimed many of his siblings, made the treacherous downstream migration to the ocean and obviously thrived there before swimming the gantlet of dams, nets, anglers, predators and other hazards before reaching its home water.
It gave me a case of the warm fuzzies. It's one thing to write about a fish swimming hundreds of miles from the Pacific and climbing 6,500 feet in elevation to the Idaho high country, but when you actually see one, it drives home the difficulty of that trek.
Imagine walking, or even driving, from the mouth of the Columbia to the mountains of central Idaho. It would be a pretty long and rugged trip. Heck, just driving there from Boise was a chore.
When you consider a fish that swims from the ocean through several river systems to spawn in a mountain stream, it's really mind-boggling.
We also saw several dead salmon slowly decomposing in the river. Those carcasses are nourishing the next generation of salmon, as well as the resident fish and insect population that feed fish.
It's all about the cycle of life in an Idaho river.
Chinook deserve the protection that's been afforded them. They're a rare gem that must be protected, preserved and restored.
To lose a fish with that kind of drive and determination would take away the soul of those mountains and the cold, clear streams that flow through them.
I'M CALLING BULL
While we were fishing, we caught a bunch of cutthroats and small rainbows, which probably were steelhead smolts. They eagerly chased a fly and gave an intense fight in swift water.
We quickly landed, unhooked them and sent them on their way.
I was a little surprised by how many bull trout we also caught on our fly rods, but I probably shouldn't have been.
Idaho's bull trout are more plentiful than people realize, and it's debatable whether they should even be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
I argue they shouldn't be.
I've asked several fellow anglers who are pretty knowledgeable about fish populations how many bull trout are in Idaho.
The common ballpark estimate was around 100,000. I probably would have made a similar guess, but I knew the answer: more than a million.
According to a population estimate published by Idaho Fish and Game biologists in 2008 in the American Fisheries Society journal, "within 262 local populations designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within seven Idaho recovery units, the number of 70-millimeter total length and larger bull trout was estimated at 1.13 million."
The report went on to say that despite a historic decline, the fish have responded to regulation changes that stopped harvest in 1994, and current Idaho bull trout populations are "widely distributed, relatively abundant, and apparently stable."
So why are they listed as "threatened" in Idaho?
I'm not advocating a bull trout gillnet season, or any other harvest for that matter. But it really makes me wonder why bull trout aren't managed like Idaho's other trout.
I am torn on that one. Listing bull trout under the Endangered Species Act probably protected some of Idaho's mountain streams, but many of them were already protected because they are in wilderness or home to wild salmon or steelhead.
"We basically have this huge core area, and we support some of the strongest bull trout populations in the Northwest," said Scott Grunder, Fish and Game's native species coordinator.
Fish and Game reports that since 1994, when bull trout harvest was banned, populations have increased in 14 of 17 of Idaho's bull trout populations.
Meanwhile, it's been 12 years since bull trout were listed under the Endangered Species Act, and there's still no final federal recovery plan, so there's no chance of delisting them.
Under a best-case scenario, it will probably be at least two or three years before the feds could even start the delisting process and remove bull trout from ESA protection.
The irony here is that it's going to take longer to get a recovery plan for bull trout than it was for Idaho to recover them, whether or not they were actually "threatened" in the first place.
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