In response to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s August 11, 2016 request, the Independent Scientific Review Panel (ISRP) reviewed the Fort Hall Bottoms Tributary Assessment and Enhancement Strategy. This document was developed by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe (SBT) for Project #1992-010-00, Fort Hall Habitat Restoration. The project’s purpose is to restore degraded habitat and promote the survival and population growth of native species, including Yellowstone cutthroat trout, within the Bottoms area. The document is intended to address the condition the Council placed on this project as part of the Resident Fish, Data Management and Program Coordination Category Review in July 2012:
Implement with condition through FY 2014. By March 2014, sponsors to develop and submit for an ISRP review a comprehensive habitat restoration plan to address ISRP qualifications. Council funding recommendation beyond 2014 based on favorable ISRP and Council review of the plan.
The ISRP’s Category Review recommendation (ISRP 2012-6, pages 154-156) included the qualification:
The sponsors should provide a comprehensive habitat restoration plan including a scientifically sound monitoring and evaluation strategy to the ISRP for review within 18 months. The plan should cover both montane and spring streams on the Fort Hall Reservation. The ISRP strongly recommends that the sponsors enlist the assistance of a fluvial geomorphologist in developing the restoration plan and a biostatistician to assist with the design of the M&E plan and analysis of data. Plans developed by the Crystal Springs and Yankee Fork projects may be useful examples. The ISRP also would like to review the Draft Resident Fisheries Management Plan.
ISRP Recommendation: Response Requested
The Fort Hall Bottoms Tributary Assessment and Enhancement Strategy (Strategy) addresses some of the ISRP’s 2012 qualifications. The Strategy provides a good description of the purpose, vision, and goals for the overall project, and it was developed with assistance of fluvial geomorphologists. The Strategy is largely a time schedule for implementation of proposed projects on four streams over a four-year period, but at present it lacks details and appears to fall short of being a systematic planning effort that identifies the most efficient and effective uses of resources. Consequently, the ISRP requests a revised Strategy that addresses the technical issues described below. Elements of a comprehensive plan that are currently missing and should be added to the revised Strategy include:
- Yellowstone cutthroat trout population and limiting factors assessment
A comprehensive review is needed of the life history requirements of Yellowstone cutthroat trout and other native fishes in the project area. Such a review should include a description of available data on the status and recovery goals for Yellowstone cutthroat trout in each target stream, identification of the specific factors limiting fish populations in each stream, and an explanation of how proposed habitat management activities will affect these limiting factors. In their July 25, 2016 cover letter to the Council, the proponents describe that an investigation of limiting factors for Yellowstone cutthroat trout population distribution and growth began in 2015.
The results of the 2015 investigation should provide insights into the habitat features that need to be enhanced. Assessments of habitat needs should include (a) spawning, (b) larval and young-of-year rearing, (c) juvenile and adult habitat across all seasons, and (d) necessary movements among habitat patches to effectively complete the life cycle. The revised Strategy should address habitat needs separately for low-gradient spring streams and for higher-gradient mountain and foothills streams.
Insights from the integration of reviews of the life history needs, determination of current status of populations, and assessment of limiting factors for each target species are necessary for identifying potential management actions to alleviate or reduce the factors limiting populations. Such insights may also identify conflicting habitat needs of different species and the need to consider all native fishes in the tributaries.
In sum, linkages are missing but need to be made between the proposed actions associated with each project and the extent of Yellowstone cutthroat trout habitat or population responses that may result. The Strategy needs to better address its primary stated purpose, “to identify a strategy for habitat improvements and management solutions to protect, enhance and/or restore habitat to benefit YCT [Yellowstone cutthroat trout] and other native salmonids within the Bottoms Area.”
- Incorporation of Grazing Management, Resident Fish Management, and Tributary Habitat Restoration Plans
Explanation is needed of how the Grazing Management Plan, the Resident Fish Management Plan, and the Tributary Habitat Restoration Plan are being integrated into a comprehensive approach to watershed restoration. It is evident in the Strategy that livestock grazing is a primary cause of stream habitat degradation among the tributary streams and that degraded stream habitat must be restored to benefit Yellowstone cutthroat trout. However, it is not evident how management activities will be integrated to (a) alleviate the impacts of livestock grazing, (b) restore stream habitat features critical to the ability of resident Yellowstone cutthroat trout to complete their life cycle, and (c) enhance the populations of self-sustaining Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the tributary streams. Mention is made of both a Grazing Management Plan and a Resident Fish Management Plan within the Strategy. However, details of these plans are not discussed. The Resident Fish Management Plan should describe management actions that are planned and the array of assessments to be implemented along with a description of methods for conducting assessments.
- Justification for sequencing of actions
Explanation and justification is needed regarding the sequencing of proposed project elements. Currently, the proposed enhancement and maintenance projects (pages 39-43) focus heavily on construction of “physical improvements” that modify channel features and appear to be expensive. A time schedule and plan for specific management actions is presented for each of the tributary streams; it appears that construction of physical improvements is proposed to occur simultaneously with watershed and livestock management. It seems that plans for effective management of grazing and resident Yellowstone cutthroat trout should precede a habitat restoration plan and that a habitat restoration plan should be responsive to the needs defined in the grazing and Yellowstone cutthroat trout management plans. Consequently, the proponents should explore and discuss an alternative sequencing approach in which watershed and livestock management practices are initiated and evaluated over several years before decisions are made to initiate more intensive, and potentially more costly, physical improvements.
On page 37 of the Strategy, the following is stated: "It’s important to note that without a proper holistic livestock management plan in place, the other physical improvements recommended herein will not function as intended. It is therefore recommended that an appropriate livestock management plan be developed in conjunction with the other physical improvements recommended in this Tributaries Assessment." The proponents of the Strategy are aware of the grazing issue and the importance of addressing it to facilitate an effective habitat enhancement strategy.
- Costs and benefits of management alternatives
Detailed documentation and assessment is needed of the relative costs and benefits of the array of management alternatives proposed for each of the four tributaries with inclusion of full costs for fencing and livestock management. This assessment would help identify the most cost effective means to restore habitat for Yellowstone cutthroat trout and other native fish species. Alternative management actions that could alleviate or reduce the impacts of livestock grazing, the apparent primary cause of habitat degradation in the tributary streams, have not been included. Although the ISRP bases its recommendations on scientific criteria, the ISRP believes the inclusion of a costs and benefits assessment in a revised Strategy would help guide and inform decision makers and restoration practitioners.
- Clarification of reach assessment criteria
Each of the tributaries was divided into reaches for both assessment of current conditions and project planning. The criteria used for separation of individual reaches need to be fully explained in the Strategy. Are the distinctions based on geomorphic changes, land use, land ownership, barriers to upstream movement, or other factors that may affect variation in water quality, channel morphology, riparian condition, and/or fish habitat?
- Summary of accomplishments
A summary is needed of what has been accomplished since 1992 in the restoration of habitat in the tributary streams and responses of resident populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Given that the project has been active since 1992, there is a number of lessons learned that should be used to inform the Strategy. A good deal of monitoring and evaluation information is provided in the 2012 proposal and in the 2014 Annual Report. This information is not reported or summarized in the Strategy. Given the long history of the project, a separate section—which summarizes protection and restoration work completed, physical and biological responses, and key lessons learned—would be a valuable addition to the revised Strategy. The summary should also describe what restoration activities and results have been accomplished since 2014 when the Strategy was drafted. Was the Strategy useful in guiding restoration activities?
- Monitoring and adaptive management
Additional detail is needed in the Monitoring and Adaptive Management section. Although the proponents have indicated that few resources are currently slated for monitoring and evaluation, a plan is needed describing how both habitat and fish will be monitored following the implementation of the proposed projects. Monitoring and evaluation is critically important because it will help the proponents determine if habitat restoration is being achieved and whether fish abundance has increased enough to achieve harvest objectives.
The Monitoring and Adaptive Management section (page 44) provides a sound justification for monitoring and adaptive management. However, the section needs additional detail. The section includes one brief paragraph on monitoring, but information is needed on how habitat and fish will be monitored before and after the implementation of the proposed projects. Adaptive management is discussed in two paragraphs, but a process for assessment of monitoring data and making decisions on alternative management actions is also necessary. Quantitative objectives and timelines for assessment of management actions for each of the projects are essential elements of monitoring and adaptive management. In short, the Strategy needs to include a more detailed monitoring and adaptive management plan.
The ISRP requests that the proponents address these seven issues, as summarized from the comments below, in the development of a revised Strategy. This revision should be accompanied by a cover letter with point-by-point responses to the ISRP concerns. Additionally, the cover letter should indicate the sections of the revised Strategy in which each concern has been addressed. The ISRP looks forward to receiving these documents within the next 18 to 24 months.
Finally, the Strategy is presented as a very attractive printed document. The high quality illustrations and photos provide an effective mechanism of communication to stakeholders. However, when preparing a technical document for ISRP review, it is more effective to use a standard reporting format (such as a Microsoft Word document) that can be readily modified and updated. This is a programmatic comment that applies to all ISRP reviews.