PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - Efforts to re-establish bull trout in its native Northwest waters have spawned a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration.
The bull trout, a member of the salmon family once known as the Dolly trout, is a midlevel predator. It could help rejuvenate its riparian habitat if efforts to stabilize its struggling numbers continue, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies says in the federal complaint. But the Corps of Engineers has stalled on assessing whether the dozens of dams it operates in the Columbia River Basin harm habitat designated as critical for the fish's survival.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed the bull trout as a threatened species in 1998, after finding that the fish remained in only half of their historic habitat.
In 2010, Fish & Wildlife designated more than 500,000 acres of critical habitat for the bull trout, including lakes, rivers and oceanfront areas in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Nevada.
Under the Endangered Species Act, designation of critical habitat obligated the Corps of Engineers to ensure that the dams do not harm the fish's ability to live and spawn in those areas.
But the Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration did not consult with Fish & Wildlife, the environmental group says in its July 11 complaint. It says the continued operation and maintenance of fish-stopping dams and wetland-flooding reservoirs in the fish's critical habitat will impair the species' recovery.
Also suing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Alliance asks the Federal Court order the defendants to reinitiate and complete consultation with Fish & Wildlife on whether the dams of the Columbia River Basin harm the trout's critical habitat.
Included in the newly designated habitat is the Bonneville Dam, which powers about 500,000 homes, and The Dalles Dam, whose reservoir caused the 1957 flooding of Celilo Falls, a major fishing and cultural center on the Columbia River for four tribes.
The Corps of Engineers claimed it was in the process of finalizing biological assessments for 10 dams: Howard A. Hanson, Dexter, Cougar, Green Peter, Lookout Point, Fall Creek, Cottage Grove, Hills Creek, Blue River, and Fern Ridge dams, the lawsuit states.
And the Corps told the Alliance it was working with Fish & Wildlife on an assessment for 12 more dams: Bonneville, The Dalles, Albeni Falls, Libby, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, Lower Granite, Ice Harbor, Dworshak, McNary, John Day, and Chief Joseph dams, which it manages together as a coordinated system.
The Corps of Engineers said it planned to have an assessment done by this fall, but in the meantime continues to operate the dams illegally, the Alliance claims.
Bull trout, a predator of small fish that has vanished in the southern part of its range, were successfully reintroduced in the Clackamas River in 2011.
Bull trout can grow to more than 20 pounds in protected lake environments. When they are young, they eat insects. As they get bigger, they switch to a diet of small fish, including sculpins, whitefish and other trout.
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife captured 116 bull trout from the Metolious River, home to the healthiest remaining population in Oregon, and transferred them in coolers to the headwaters of the Clackamas River, where the fish have flourished.
This spring, fish biologists documented numerous bull trout redds, where the fish excavated a nest in the streambed and laid their eggs.
The Alliance's lead counsel is Marianne Dugan, in Eugene.
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