Federal officials say they don't need to put the Bonneville cutthroat trout on the endangered or threatened species list, and that pleases Utah members of Trout Unlimited who have worked for decades to bring back the fish once thought extinct.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that self-sustaining Bonneville cutthroat trout populations are well distributed throughout its historic range and are being restored or protected in all currently occupied watersheds.
"I think that's really good. We've been working on this for 30 years," said biologist Don Duff. "We need to keep up the good work and hold the state and feds' feet to the fire to make sure that land use adequately considers this native species' protection."
In its announcement, Fish and Wildlife acknowledged that populations of Bonneville cutthroat trout have been greatly reduced over the past two centuries. However, the agency said, recent surveys show populations have increased during the past 30 years.
In 1974, Duff found a genetically pure Bonneville cutthroat in the Deep Creek Mountains in western Utah. Then working as a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Duff followed up on an earlier cutthroat hunting party's failure in finding a pure strain of the fish, named for the 20,000-square-mile ancient Lake Bonneville, which covered a large part of the Great Basin in Utah and small parts of eastern Nevada and southern Idaho.
Duff found the fish, and DNA testing proved its genetic purity. Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources set to work identifying and protecting the pure populations and restoring them to their historic watercourses.
In 1978, there were only six known populations of Bonneville cutthroat in Utah and the fish were found in fewer than 5 miles of stream. As of March, there were 165 conservation populations in Utah in more than 2,000 miles of streams, state fisheries officials said. Bear Lake, on the Utah-Idaho border, holds the largest lake population of Bonnevilles in their native range.
Chris Thomas, Utah Trout Unlimited council chairman, welcomed the news. "We've always tried to keep it off the list. The state has always had a good plan," he said.
But one of the conservation groups that sued Fish and Wildlife criticized the agency move.
Noah Greenwald, science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the agency followed a Bush administration policy established last year that the analysis could only consider the Bonneville cutthroat trout's current range.
Historically, the fish has lost 65 percent of its range, Greenwald said. And if you exclude the hybrid trout, the pure cutthroats now occupy only about 10 percent of its historic range.
The fish are mostly absent from bigger streams but occupy tiny, high-elevation headwaters streams, he said. That could be a consequence of climate change, but Fish and Wildlife didn't seriously consider that possibility.
The fish like bigger streams with deep pools where they can hide. "Droughty or warmer conditions do not bode well," Greenwald said.
Duff said more than $100,000 in grants helped restore the Bonneville cutthroat in the West Desert. But the fish still face serious threats from energy development in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah and the potential loss of water in the West Desert to the Southern Nevada Water Authority's proposed groundwater pumping pipeline.