A helicopter rising from the bottom of a canyon.
A helicopter rising from the Little Owyhee River Canyon after dropping off the 
BLM Vale District stream survey crew.  (BLM/SE Oregon Fish Survey)

The Evolution of Aquatic Resource Management in the BLM

By Mike Crouse

I was hired by the BLM in the late 1970s to help prepare environmental impact statements (EISs) mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act and settlement of the 1974 Natural Resources Defense Council lawsuit, which required the BLM to assess the impacts of grazing.  At the time, I was the first BLM fisheries biologist east of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington.  With a small crew, or sometimes alone, I conducted some of the first systematic assessments of fish and aquatic habitats for hundreds of miles of streams.  I fondly remember several field seasons of camping out and surveying streams by foot, horseback, and helicopter.  More than once, I returned on the weekends with my wife and young sons to show them some of these beautiful and remote areas.

The fish and aquatic habitat information gathered during these surveys was included in numerous grazing EISs and used in records of decisions that called for significant changes in grazing practices, especially in the Trout Creek Mountains of southeastern Oregon.  At that time, the concept of riparian area management was relatively new, and stream bottoms were often heavily impacted by summer-long grazing.  Area range conservationists were essential to implementing actions to protect and improve streams and riparian areas because they had the trust of local ranchers.  With their support, dozens of miles of stream habitat for the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout were excluded from livestock grazing using rim and water-gap fencing.  The ecological response within these enclosures was truly miraculous.  Grasses, sedges, willows, and even long-absent aspens flourished, streambanks healed, channels narrowed and deepened, water temperatures became cooler, and trout populations expanded.  This network of stream enclosures later served as the foundation of watershedwide grazing systems promoted by the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group.

Increasing awareness and an emphasis on riparian and aquatic resources on public lands came to fruition in the early 1990s.  In response to information documenting broad declines in naturally reproducing Pacific salmon, steelhead, and bull trout and widespread degradation of the habitat upon which these fish species depend, the Forest Service and BLM adopted a comprehensive aquatic conservation strategy (ACS) throughout the Pacific Northwest.  Commonly referred to as PACFISH, the ACS established stream corridors along fish-bearing streams and important tributaries in which strict standards and guidelines were applied to regulate land-disturbing activities, including grazing, mining, and timber harvesting.  In addition, the ACS required that field units conduct watershed-scale analyses to ensure that the most critical aquatic habitats were considered in planning for land management and restoration actions.  This ecosystem-based ACS was also a key component of both the Northwest Forest Plan and the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project (ICBEMP).

As a senior manager with BLM, and later with the National Marine Fisheries Service, I had the privilege of working with a dedicated group of interagency managers and biologists to facilitate the implementation of these ACS on the ground and to streamline the consultation process for anadromous fish and bull trout listed under the Endangered Species Act.

To promote the “riparian revolution” on public lands beyond the range of anadromous fish and bull trout, BLM Director Mike Dombeck and Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas established the National Riparian Service Team, led by Wayne Elmore, in 1996.  The conceptual centerpiece of the NRST’s work is the proper functioning condition (PFC) assessment, which uses a variety of criteria to determine the ecological potential of a stream and watershed and measures it against current conditions.  Then the team helps field units design management prescriptions to move the watershed toward PFC.

Today, these approaches still serve as cornerstones for the management of aquatic and riparian habitats on BLM and Forest Service lands in the West. 

During his 20 years with the BLM, Mike Crouse was a fisheries biologist in Vale, Oregon; the national fisheries program manager in Washington, DC; and the chief of biological resources for the Oregon/Washington State Office.  He also worked for several other federal agencies during his 36-year career.