December 22, 2022
Bart Johnsen-Harris and Lauren McCain

The bull trout holds an important role in the food web as both predator and prey across the Northwest, but the species relies heavily on proper stewardship of federal public lands to sustain its habitat. The fish is considered an “indicator species,” a species that signals water quality issues for both humans and other wildlife. It has also held a cultural significance for Native American Tribes for centuries. The bull trout is critically imperiled and listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

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Lone bull trout in water
Olympic National Park

To survive, this fish requires the coldest water of any species in the Northwest—its waters have historically been fed by glaciers and melting snow. Vegetation along riverbanks helps to shade waterways and keep temperatures cool. But when ranchers allow their cattle to graze along streambanks, this plant cover disappears, the water warms and fish suffer the consequences.

Protecting threatened and endangered species like bull trout often comes down to using common sense. Every species needs certain habitat conditions to survive and thrive. Over the years, humans have thrown ecosystems out of balance through a combination of land development, pollution, clearcutting forests, trapping and hunting, climate change, and more. We now have an important part to play by addressing the threats to wildlife that we can still control. 

One solution for the bull trout—as with all imperiled species—is to consider its needs in our decision-making processes. The fish inhabits rivers and streams that flow through national forests, so the U.S. Forest Service plays a major role in facilitating the trout’s survival. In 2019, new information revealed the threat that grazing cattle poses to bull trout. The Forest Service worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address the problem—as is required under the ESA. This process is called “consultation.” The Forest Service incorporated new safeguards into the forest plan that resulted in commonsense and effective protections for the fish by requiring better fencing to limit cattle grazing in the bull trout’s spawning areas.

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Several bull trout in water
Olympic National Park

Unfortunately, a troubling bill (S.2561) has been advancing through the Senate this year that would eliminate essential consultation obligations for the Forest Service as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) across the 439 million acres of land they manage. The bill is colloquially known as “Cottonwood.” This nickname references a 2015 court case revolving around Canada lynx protections in the Northern Rocky Mountains (Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. U.S. Forest Service) that reaffirmed the consultation duty of the Forest Service. The bill would override this pro-wildlife decision and negatively affect many of the hundreds of threatened and endangered species that now occur on Forest Service and BLM lands—as well as species that will be listed under the ESA in the future.

Consultation is the ESA’s mechanism for Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service biologists to analyze impacts of Forest Service and BLM activities, such as logging projects, and to provide measures intended to mitigate harmful impacts before they occur. The Forest Service and BLM are legally accountable to modify proposed projects, when necessary, so as not to jeopardize the survival of these species or adversely affect their critical habitat.

Consultation is required both for specific projects areas, like the site of a logging project, as well as for the overarching federal land management plans that provide direction for implementing projects across an entire landscape—such as a national forest. Plans serve as landscape-level blueprints that specify which activities are permitted in which federal areas (e.g., which areas of national forests can be logged) and provide provisions for protecting listed species from harm deriving from projects. However, plans are often decades old and do not account for changed circumstances, new science related to listed species, or even newly listed threatened and endangered species. When plans are out of date, agencies are required to re-initiate the consultation process before undertaking major activities. This consultation helps to ensure that plans provide the necessary provisions to prevent harm to imperiled species when the Forest Service and BLM develop and implement projects.

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Logs
Intermountain Forest Service

If species were not threatened or endangered when the plan was initially designed, then it is likely that the plan does not adequately protect them. Similarly, this re-consultation accounts for the designation of new critical habitat and major changes (such as climate change impacts) across the landscape.

Proponents of the Cottonwood overhaul blame the ESA for arbitrarily “shutting down” national forests to many projects, which they say brings industrial logging to a standstill. They also argue that the law’s requirement to re-initiate consultations on plans is redundant, since projects would already have been vetted on the ground through site-specific consultations. Finally, they allege that this process is a costly and time-intensive burden to federal agencies that doesn’t confer any real benefits to wildlife. 

In reality, the bill would eliminate the only way to identify and address high-level risks to species across the landscape (e.g., climate change), as well as those that could lead to “extinction by a thousand cuts” scenarios. The Forest Service might approve a single logging project that it claims would not jeopardize the Canada lynx’s survival. But the lynx could reach a tipping point if 20 additional projects in the vicinity are also approved without anyone considering the bigger picture. It’s important that the cumulative effects of multiple projects on threatened and endangered species is considered.

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Expansive Forest - Nantahala National Forest - Blue Ridge Mountains - North Carolina
Bill Lea

The particular type of consultation that the bill targets is actually relatively uncommon. The Forest Service only completes an average of five to six landscape-level consultations per year—the majority of which are finished in a matter of weeks. But, because these consultations provide the only mechanism to avert the thousand-cuts problem, they are usually important.

Weakening longstanding, necessary, and effective safeguards for wildlife would serve only to remedy a nonexistent problem in an irresponsible way. The Cottonwood overhaul would gut the requirement to analyze new conditions and establish commensurate protections for species. Instead, the bill would fast-track the approval of environmentally damaging projects despite the harm they may pose to at-risk wildlife.

Simply put: the bill would undermine the ESA and drive threatened and endangered species, like the bull trout that depend on our national forests and BLM lands, closer to extinction.

Earlier this month, Defenders of Wildlife and more than one hundred other environmental groups sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to exclude S.2561 from any end-of-year legislative package. We were successful in keeping the provision out of the end-of-year funding package that is set to be enacted this week. But we fully expect this issue—unfortunately—to re-emerge next year. Contact your senators and representative today to make sure they stand ready to oppose the Cottonwood overhaul.

Author(s)

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Bart Johnsen-Harris

Bart Johnsen-Harris

Senior Government Relations Representative
Bart leads Defenders’ federal advocacy to protect wildlife on multiple-use public lands.
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Lauren McCain

Lauren McCain

Senior Federal Lands Policy Analyst (CO)
Lauren McCain works to defend, strengthen and expand federal law, policy and management that conserve wildlife and habitat on federal lands, with a special focus on national forests and grasslands.
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