- Associated Press - Thursday, November 17, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Federal officials are reconsidering how roads and motorized trails in part of the Sawtooth National Forest could harm threatened bull trout following a lawsuit by an environmental group.

As a result, a federal judge on Wednesday put a lawsuit by WildEarth Guardians on hold until Feb. 14 while the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service analyze how motorized travel and climate change could harm critical habitat for bull trout, a torpedo-shaped fish that needs clear, cold water to survive.

Environmentalists say bull trout can be harmed by roads that block off sections of streams and isolate populations. Roads can also be a source of sediment entering streams.

The lawsuit filed Sept. 30 says that the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 designated 15 streams and their tributaries as critical habitat in the Fairfield Ranger District in south-central Idaho.

The lawsuit contends the federal agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act by not consulting to make sure use of motorized vehicles in the forest doesn’t harm bull trout following the critical habitat designation.

The group initially sent a letter in July of its intent to sue within 60 days. The Forest Service responded on Sept. 22 saying it had reinitiated consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service about roads and the vehicles’ impact.

The environmental group went ahead and filed the lawsuit on Sept. 30, and on Oct. 11 the Forest Service sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service confirming it had started the process the environmental group sought.

“By agreeing to reconsider past motorized use decisions, the Forest Service can begin to heal the national forest landscape scarred from decades of road building,” WildEarth Guardians attorney Marla Fox said in a statement.

An attorney for the U.S. Forest Service, Christine England, said the agency had no immediate comment.

Specifically, the lawsuit contends the Fairfield Ranger District Travel Plan hasn’t been analyzed following the Fish and Wildlife Service’s bull trout critical habitat designation. Such an analysis is required under the Endangered Species Act to make sure motorized travel doesn’t jeopardize bull trout and its habitat.

The federal agencies have agreed to update the court every 30 days on progress made on consultations regarding the travel plan.

Bull trout evolved with salmon after the last ice age and preyed on young salmon and salmon eggs, and still do in some areas. But bull trout have declined along with salmon, and they were listed as threatened in the lower 48 in 1999. Bull trout now only occupy about 60 percent of their former range, which currently encompasses Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state.

Threats to the cold-water species, experts say, include warming water caused by climate change, isolated populations, interbreeding with non-native brook trout, and competition for food from non-native lake trout introduced as a sport fish both legally and illegally from other North American waters.

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