Trout Unlimited has just released its most comprehensive report detailing the status of its namesake fish. The conservation group also has a message: The nation’s trout are in trouble.
The United States has 28 native trout species and subspecies. Three have gone extinct. Remaining trout now occupy less than 25 percent of their historic habitat.
The study found four major threats to the continuing vitality of the freshwater fish, which mostly come from human meddling. Those threats include climate change, invasive species, energy development and unsustainable water consumption.
“(This) is not about trout, it’s about us,” said Chris Wood, chief executive officer for Trout Unlimited. “If people care about clean drinking water, they should care about trout. If you’re concerned about effects of climate change, you should also care about trout.”
The study collected data from federal and state agencies throughout the country, and the report is divided into geographic regions. It details the trout trends and threats within each region.
Paul Thompson, Northern Region Aquatics Manager with DWR, holds up a freshly tagged Bonneville cutthroat trout Friday, April 26, 2014. The fish was pulled out of Jacobs Creek.
In the Interior Basins region of the West, which includes northern Utah, grazing affects nearly every cutthroat. Non-native fish like brown and rainbow trout have menaced native species. Dams and diversions along the Weber and Bear rivers create formidable obstacles for fish. Wildfires are a growing threat, as they burner bigger, hotter and more frequently in the West.
According to the study, northern Utah’s trout most in distress is the Bonneville cutthroat.
“One of the amazing things about that fish is it has a lot of large migrations,” said Jack Williams, Trout Unlimited senior scientist. “They’re big fish that move long distances.”
That means the fish needs large, uninterrupted streams to thrive, and major tributaries to the Great Salt Lake historically provided its habitat.
Overfishing, invasive species and fragmented habitat from human development have cut the Bonneville cutthroat’s habitat to 30 percent of its past range. Over 50 percent of its current habitat now lies in the Bear River.
As the state’s human population grows, however, proposed dams and projects along the Bear River to meet future water demand could have big implications for the fish.
“Water infrastructure usually fragments stream systems,” Williams said. “We lose the connections that get these large migratory fish (through) those stream systems.”
Water projects also compound the consequences of climate change.
“If they’re diverting water from the stream,” Williams said, “the water that remains is going to warm more quickly.”
Trout depend on cold water, Williams said, and warming waters also increase the range of aquatic non-natives.
“Climate change and invasive species … work in tandem to cause problems for these fish,” he said.
Other fallout from climate change in the West will spell trouble for Utah fish, especially drought.
“Water supply problems and competition for water is the big problem in that part of the country,” Williams said.
While the future looks bleak for the nation’s native fish, Trout Unlimited scientists and spokesman said there are solutions.
“First, we need to address the four major threats head on,” Williams said. “Secondly, we need to become more effective in our restoration work. We need to make restoration count.”
The energy development threat can be addressed by barring projects near valuable fish habitat. Non-native species can be curbed through concentrated efforts. The water diversion threat can be alleviated through conservation. The climate change threat, however, presents the biggest challenge.
“There is lots we need to do in that arena,” Williams said. “Top on our list is to rebuild trout strongholds (and) rebuild these larger trout populations.”
Larger populations will make the fish more resilient to change. The Trout Unlimited spokesmen also said the fish need more people in public and private conservation partnerships.
To ensure trout thrive for future generations, people also need to start thinking about their conservation work on the scale of entire watersheds, not just by stream segment.
“Trout are incredibly resilient creatures,” Wood said. “If we give these fish half a chance, they will respond.”
To read the State of the Trout report, visit the Trout Unlimited website at http://www.tu.org/stateofthetrout