Cooperative conservation pays off for Bonneville cutthroat trout

Federal judge dismisses lawsuit, praises work to help one of Utah's native fish

Implementation of voluntary conservation efforts by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and other partners has been crucial to the conservation of the Bonneville cutthroat trout, a fish found primarily in Utah and southwestern Wyoming.

Because of these efforts, in 2001 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided it was not necessary to list the Bonneville cutthroat trout under the Endangered Species Act. This finding was based on results of a comprehensive status review. The review found that viable, self-sustaining populations of Bonneville cutthroat trout were widely distributed throughout its range and were being restored or protected rangewide.

After the 2001 finding, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Pacific Rivers Council and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance filed a lawsuit challenging the USFWS's decision.

On March 7, 2007, Denver Federal Judge Richard Matsch dismissed the lawsuit. In his dismissal order, the judge ruled that the USFWS properly considered the value of voluntary conservation measures that have helped improve the cutthroat's status. According to the judge, "Cooperation, with a demonstrated commitment to preservation of the species with the interaction of government and nongovernment agencies, is inherently more effective than government edicts or mandates."

The plantiffs could appeal the judge's decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has always believed that the recovery and conservation of imperiled species can be better accomplished through voluntary cooperative partnerships than through regulatory measures," says Mitch King, director of the USFWS's Mountain-Prairie Region. "By joining forces, we can accomplish far more than we could on our own."

In the mid 1990s the states of Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada, with assistance from conservation partners, developed several conservation agreements and strategies. The purpose of the agreements and strategies was to ensure the long-term conservation of Bonneville cutthroat trout by providing guidance on how to eliminate threats and to encourage further conservation actions through interagency coordination. Since that time, the partners who signed the agreements have worked cooperatively to restore, expand and protect Bonneville cutthroat trout in various types of habitat, including multiple-sized streams, lakes and reservoirs.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) chairs the rangewide Bonneville Cutthroat Trout Conservation Team. Members of the team have undertaken a broad array of conservation activities and have made much progress over the past six years. The team has surveyed and monitored Bonneville cutthroat trout populations; restored, acquired and protected habitat for the trout; removed and controlled nonnative fish; developed brood stock; and worked with federal partners to ensure federal land is managed in a way that protects Bonneville cutthroat trout.

"The restoration of Bonneville cutthroat trout into unoccupied portions of their historic range is one of the most important things the team has accomplished," says Roger Wilson, DWR sport fisheries coordinator and chairman of the Bonneville Cutthroat Trout Conservation Team.

"In the 1950s, Bonneville cutthroat trout were thought to be extinct," Wilson says. "Today, through our restoration efforts, Bonneville cutthroat trout now occupy about 35 percent of their historic range in Utah.

"The team's conservation efforts will accelerate over the next several years as we develop additional brood sources and expand our conservation activities."

The DWR is one of seven divisions in the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Through its Endangered Species Mitigation Fund, the DNR participates in recovery and restoration efforts for dozens of listed and sensitive species in Utah.

The state of Utah annually provides about $3 million to recover federally listed species. This money is also used to manage and improve habitats for sensitive species so they do not require federal listing.

"The successful efforts of our partners, including the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation and Trout Unlimited demonstrate the true power of community-based conservation," says Larry Crist, the USFWS's Utah Ecological Services field supervisor.

More information about the Bonneville cutthroat trout and ongoing conservation efforts to help the fish is available at mountain-prairie.fws.gov.