Decision withdrawn for fish restoration project in the Scapegoat
August 26, 2021
SEELEY LAKE – Following a request for an injunction filed by several environmental groups challenging the North Fork Blackfoot River Indigenous Fish Restoration Project, the Lolo and Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests withdrew their decision on Aug. 5. The decision, signed June 2, approved a permit authorizing Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to remove the non-native hybrid population of fish and replace it with westslope cutthroat trout to hopefully establish a viable population of native trout.
“The legal challenge has caused us to want to take another look,” Lolo National Forest Supervisor Carolyn Upton said. “The Forests will continue to work closely with Montana FWP on the future of this project. Anything we do we will have adequate and appropriate public involvement and opportunities for comment as we move forward again. We welcome that engagement.”
The primary purpose of FWP’s North Fork Blackfoot River Indigenous Fish Restoration Project is to establishing a population of westslope cutthroat trout in the North Fork Blackfoot River watershed upstream of a barrier waterfall in the Scapegoat Wilderness. Secondarily, the project would eliminate a source of nonnative genes that threaten the westslope cutthroat trout in the North Fork Blackfoot River watershed downstream of the barrier falls. FWP wrote in their environmental assessment that both goals would bring considerable conservation benefit to native trout.
In order to accomplish these goals, FWP would implement the project in two phases. In Phase one, they would poison the non-native and hybrid fish species from the project area by using the piscicide, rotenone, to eradicate the non-native fish species. This would be applied to three lakes and 67 miles of the North Fork of the Blackfoot River and its tributaries within the Scapegoat Wilderness. It would require landing a helicopter and the use of a motorized watercraft and electric generators within the wilderness boundary.
In Phase two, FWP would restock the waters with genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout that are native to Montana. It would be sourced from hatcheries and reintroduced over the next six years.
“Hybrid trout in this area are an outlier in an otherwise native trout stronghold, so we’d like to establish westslope cutthroat trout in the project area similar to the healthy populations in neighboring drainages,” said Randy Arnold, FWP Regional Supervisor in a press release.
While FWP completed an environmental assessment, the Forest Service assessed the suitability of the proposed activities through a process called a “minimum requirements analysis.” This is a process used to identify, analyze and recommend management actions that are the minimum necessary for wilderness administration, as directed by the Wilderness Act of 1964.
The Forest Service concluded that while short-term impacts may occur during project implementation, they would outweigh the long-term gains of removing non-indigenous fish species from the headwaters of the Blackfoot River.
While Phase One was scheduled to begin in August, the lawsuit filed against the Forest Service by Wilderness Watch, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan and Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force and Conservation Congress has caused the Forest Service, “to take a little extra time and look at the body of work that was done for this project,” Upton said.
The lawsuit takes issue with the project on several fronts.
The environmental groups allege landing a helicopter and use of motorized equipment in the Wilderness as well as utilizing poison to kill fish violates the Wilderness Act by not preserving the wilderness character and natural conditions. They claim the approved activities were not necessary to meet the minimum action necessary to achieve the objective and not all actions were adequately considered.
The groups also claim the Forest Service violates the National Environmental Policy Act for several reasons including: Not fully analyzing the effects of the “helicopter-assisted fish-poisoning project;” by improperly applying a categorical exclusion for wildlife habitat improvement projects that do not include the use of herbicides; failing to adequately analyze impacts of rotenone poisoning on non-target species and containment issues; failing to analyze a reasonable range of alternatives; and failing to analyze the cumulative effects of FWP’s project combined with other reasonably foreseeable actions in the Wilderness.
In the lawsuit, the groups contend that FWP excluded details of a broader plan in the North Fork Blackfoot River Native Fish Conservation Project to introduce bull trout into the same waters above the falls as the “desirable future condition.” Since bull trout are federally protected, stocking would require “considerable consultation” between state and federal agencies. The Forest Service failed to disclose or address the FWP’s bull trout introduction plan.
The plaintiffs asked for the court to: Declare the Forest Service violates the Wilderness Act, NEPA and those statutes’ implementing regulations; set aside the decision memo and associated permits; grant temporary, preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to prohibit the Forest Service from future implementation; award plaintiffs attorney fees and any additional relief the court deems just and proper.
Upton said no decision has been made on how or when the project will be reinitiated.
For more information regarding the project, visit the Lolo National Forest project page https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=59396.