Fisheries Society challenges Nevada claims about bull trout

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RENO - Independent scientists say the threatened bull trout faces a greater risk of extinction in Nevada than state wildlife officials have maintained.

An independent review by the American Fisheries Society comes as Elko County continues talks with the federal government over county plans to rebuild a washed-out road along bull trout habitat in a national forest in northeast Nevada.

The Nevada Division of Wildlife - at odds with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service - is sticking to its claims that the fish is doing as well as it ever has in the Jarbidge River and doesn't warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The new review, commissioned by Trout Unlimited, says the state made overly optimistic assumptions about the bull trout's ability to survive.

Founded in 1879, the American Fisheries Society based in Bethesda, Md., is the oldest and largest professional organization representing fisheries scientists.

Two biologists in the society's western division conducted the ''blind'' peer review of the state's 1999 assessment of the bull trout. The reviewers didn't know the authors of the study and the reviewers' names were not released.

One of the biologists says the state's status report defies conventional scientific wisdom concerning survival of species numbering 2,000 or less. From 700 to 1,500 bull trout are thought to survive in Nevada.

''I found little in the status report to support its conclusion that bull trout in the basin are secure,'' the scientist said.

The other scientist says the formula the state used to calculate the population is ''a considerable stretch.''

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

Gene Weller, deputy administrator of the Nevada Division of Wildlife, defended the state assessments and criticized Trout Unlimited for continuing to challenge the findings.

''They are dredging up old news. We are trying to move forward,'' said Weller, the state agency's former chief of fisheries and a lead researcher on bull trout.

''Experts are cheap. You can find an expert to tell you anything you want to hear,'' he said Wednesday.

''I could pick it apart, but I'm not going to do that. ... I feel it is almost an 'in-your-face' kind of thing and I don't have time for that.''

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overruled the state and listed the bull trout as threatened in 1998. The listing came after the county used a bulldozer to try to reopen the road in defiance of Forest Service orders.

The Forest Service says reconstruction of the road in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest could lead to the extinction of the local population of bull trout.

The state wildlife division formally opposed reconstruction of the road, but made clear it does not believe that the fish would become extinct if the road were rebuilt.

Elko County commissioners battling the federal government continually point to the state wildlife division's findings as proof that the bull trout really doesn't face any danger.

Trout Unlimited, a key backer of federal protection for the fish, sought the society's review after the state refused requests to seek independent review of its findings.

''What this review confirms more clearly than ever is that (the state's) arguments didn't hold water then and don't hold water now,'' said Joseph McGurrin, national resource director for Trout Unlimited in Arlington, Va.

''We know bull trout are in trouble in the Jarbidge and we need a sound scientific framework in place to guide us toward recovery,'' said Matt Holford, executive director of Nevada Trout Unlimited in Elko.

State and federal authorities, Trout Unlimited and the American Fisheries Society all used the same population data - the state's - in arriving at their varied conclusions about the fate of the fish.

Bull trout are federally protected in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The bull trout in Nevada represent the southernmost surviving population in North America.

''There is a wealth of information about the bull trout in the Northwest,'' Holford said.

''The scientists in the state of Nevada are the only ones who say nothing is wrong. If you look at the extinction charts, populations under 2,000 are at extreme risk,'' he said.

Weller said data going back to the 1930s shows the bull trout's numbers in Nevada haven't fluctuated much since then.

''We admit they are in low numbers. But we find them everywhere we would expect to,'' he said.

''The fish itself is a glacial relic. It is closely related to glacial systems and there are no glaciers left in Jarbidge. As such, the fish are never going to be numerous,'' he said.


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