Fish all but forgotten in Elko County feud over forest road

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How many scientists does it take to decide if a fish will live?

The verdict is still out in a remote mountain canyon in northeast Nevada, where scientific debate rages over the fate of a gray +trout+ with light-colored spots.

The threatened bull trout has been largely lost in a legal tug of war over who owns a dirt road in a national forest and a resulting citizen rebellion against federal government control of public land.

But it is the biology of the bull trout - it's dependence on cold, clean water with little human disturbance - that is making it difficult to find any middle ground for a compromise along the Jarbidge River in remote Elko County near the Idaho border.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the local population of bull trout endangered on an emergency basis in August 1998 and later scaled back the listing to threatened.

Based on concerns raised by the conservation group Trout Unlimited, the Forest Service reversed an earlier plan to rebuild a road along the Jarbidge River after it washed out in 1995.

Agency biologists fear rebuilding the road would erode soil along the banks, fill the gravel river bed with silt, raise water temperatures - and lower the trout's chances for survival.

Elko County and the Nevada Division of Wildlife disagree.

The state wildlife agency's biologists don't believe the fish warrants federal protection at all, arguing there never have been large numbers of bull trout in the area. They say rebuilding South Canyon Road would not do enough damage to the river to push the local bull trout into extinction.

One of the few things that everybody does seem to agree on is that there are 800 to 1,500 bull trout surviving in the Jarbidge River.

The scientific debate centers on whether that's enough to keep the local population alive.

Trout Unlimited says anything less than 2,000 isn't enough to support a species.

''It's plain old sex, boys and girls,'' said Matt Holford, executive director of Trout Unlimited.

''There aren't enough boyfriends and girlfriends out there to propagate. It isn't rocket science,'' he said.

But the Nevada Division of Wildlife says that's all the bull trout that have ever lived in the Jarbidge River since the Ice Age.

''The bottom line is there is very little we can do in that system that is going to change anything short of carrying big blocks of ice into the upper wilderness area, dropping them off and making some glaciers,'' said Gene Weller, Division of Wildlife deputy administrator and former fisheries chief.

Seeking another view, Trout Unlimited commissioned the American Fisheries Society to conduct peer review of the state's research.

Two scientists who conducted the independent review concluded the fish faces a greater risk of extinction in Nevada than state wildlife officials acknowledge.

''Even allowing for the questionable sampling techniques used in the Nevada status report, the ... assessments all suggest a population at risk of extinction,'' one wrote.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Jarbidge River bull trout threatened at the same time it ordered protection for other populations of the fish in the Columbia River, Washington state's Puget Sound area and the Klamath River in Oregon and California.

Part of the Snake River basin, the bull trout in the Jarbidge represent the only surviving population of the fish in Nevada and the southernmost existing group in the Lower 48 states.

''This population segment is (distinct) because it is segregated from other bull trout in the Snake River basin by a large gap'' - 150 miles, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its listing decision.

''The population segment is considered significant because it occupies a unique ecological setting and its loss would result in a substantial modification of the species' range,'' the agency said.

Decades of mining, logging, livestock grazing, road construction and channelization of the river have pushed the fish to the brink of extinction, the agency says.

But Nevada wildlife officials say that is further testament to the bull trout's durability, not a cause for alarm.

''At one point during the early 1900s, when the area was being so brutally mined, the fish did not become extirpated. It hung on,'' Weller said.

''To look at what (the habitat) was then and what it is like now is like night and day. Sure there are minor modifications of habitat. But overall the habitat ratings are good to excellent conditions,'' he said.

The scientists for the American Fisheries Society, founded in 1879 and now the oldest and largest professional organization representing fisheries scientists, said the state comparisons of bull trout populations only go back to the 1930s when the numbers likely already had been reduced greatly from the historic norms.

''It depends how far back you want to go,'' Weller responded.

''When there were glaciers there were probably considerably more, all the way to Boise,'' he said.

Now, ''they are in low numbers but they are distributed everywhere you would expect to find them,'' he said.

Weller said scarcity of a species is not one of the criteria the Fish and Wildlife Service can use to list a species.

''The primary purpose of listing is threats. We contend based on the land-use patterns, based on their positions in the watershed, based on distribution, there are no threats,'' he said.

Weller acknowledged, ''any time you build a road it negatively impacts fish habitat.

''But we place the highest value on spawning and reading habitat, in the wilderness area already protected upstream'' from the washed-out road, he said. ''It is not a critical habitat area.''

Trout Unlimited disagrees.

''The biggest threat right now is the road on the river,'' Holford said.

''Not just the 1.5 mile section but the full length of the road and its maintenance. The lack of woody debris is also very common. They are worried about floods in the canyon so everytime they see something fall in the river, they worry about logjams so they take it out,'' he said.

''But the fish need that material to make pools in the river.''

Holford said the bull trout ''are still reeling from the past effects'' of logging and mining despite the fact most of that work stopped decades ago.

''We're not here to fight with NDOW. We are just trying to get the science right,'' he said.

Holford said the state has little concern for protection of native species like the bull trout or Lahontan cutthroat. Instead, Holford said it is devoting its energy to maintaining sport fisheries, especially the popular brown and rainbow trout that have been transplanted to Nevada.

''They are only taking care of recreational fishermen. We need a native fish protection policy in this state,'' Holford said.

The Lahontan cutthroat trout was listed as a threatened species 29 years ago ''and we still don't have a workable recovery plan,'' he said.

''We don't have 29 years for these bull trout. It is a very, very small population.''

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