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Bull trout

Support critical habitat protections for bull trout in Washington. Among other things, bull trout need very clean and cold water to survive.

Salvelinus confluentus

Because they require very cold, clean water, Bull trout are one of the best indicators of high quality aquatic habitat. These native char, often confused with their genetic cousins the Dolly Varden and arctic char, historically inhabited most watersheds in western North America. 

A healthy Skagit River bull trout. Photo: Chase Gunnell
A healthy Skagit River bull trout. Photo: Chase Gunnell

In the coastal Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska, these aggressive aquatic predators are often anadromous, leaving their natal streams and rivers in the fall or winter for estuaries or on to the Salish Sea, then returning to freshwater in the spring to feed on salmon fry and eggs, insects and other fish through the summer. 

In the Inland West, bull trout often follow a similar life history, migrating to large lakes for a season or even years at a time, then returning to smaller creeks and rivers to spawn.

Because Bull Trout feed heavily on out-migrating salmon and steelhead fry and smolt, they were once the subject of intensive eradication campaigns, including government bounties.

In addition to clean water, bull trout require complex habitat conditions (large wood, stable stream banks, deep pools), and watershed habitat connectivity for their seasonal migrations between spawning and rearing sites. 

In the late 1990s, bull trout were listed under the Endangered Species Act in many western watersheds. 

Although populations are exceptionally healthy in some Washington river systems, including several north Puget Sound rivers, in many areas of the Northwest and Inland West Bull Trout are threatened with extirpation because of declining habitat conditions, low populations and a loss of aquatic connectivity. 

Read about our work for sustainable forest roads. Erosion and sedminent from unmaintained and excessive forest roads is a major problem in the headwaters where bull trout live and spawn. 

Other key points:

  • Portions of the bull trout’s historic range that are not currently occupied, have sporadic records, or have low densities must be protected to ensure full recovery, especially resident populations and aquatic habitat that connects core habitat areas.
  • Federal and other public lands provide key habitat for bull trout and should be included in the critical habitat designation.
  • While Habitat Conservation Plans help limit harm to bull trout habitat, they generally are not sufficiently protective to provide for bull trout recovery, and in areas where they are threatened they need additional critical habitat protections.
  • Efforts are underway to protect river and tributary habitats where bull trout are currently threatened, including Kettle River, San Poil River, Okanogan River, Willapa River, Dosewallips River, tributaries of Hood Canal, Lake Chelan, and Lake Roosevelt (including Sherman, Hawk, Onion, and Sheep Creek), and where bull trout were historically present (including Spokane River and Stehekin River).
  • Currently, the bull trout is occupying half of its historic range. The new proposal would designate 23,000 miles of streams and 533,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs as critical habitat in the greater Northwest, including streams in the south Puget Sound and Clark Fork River Basin. This would more than quadruple their current protected habitat. Additionally, 1,000 miles of marine shoreline in Washington would be included under the new protection.
  • Bull trout are considered one of the top 10 species in America most threatened by climate change. Protecting further miles of stream habitat for bull trout should help them in the face of climate change and the likely attendant warming of river waters.
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