In a remote corner of Washington’s North Cascades National Park in the middle of November, divers in insulated suits and snorkels brave the frigid, clear waters of Stetattle Creek looking for bull trout. Over the past decade, biologists with the National Park Service have been studying this native species in the Skagit River watershed, hoping to gain a better understanding of the environmental pressures causing these threatened fish to decline.
“I like to call bull trout the polar bear of the North Cascades,” says Ashley Rawhouser, an aquatic ecologist at North Cascades National Park. “We’re concerned about the bull trout in the upper part of the watershed. We’ve seen their numbers go up and down over the years, and they’re currently on a downward trend.”
Bull trout are extremely sensitive to habitat changes, and as such serve as a bellwether for the overall health of an ecosystem. But for Washington’s North Cascades monumental changes loom just 30 miles upriver, across the border in the mountains of British Columbia, where a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine could be dug into the headwaters of the Skagit River watershed.
With conflict brewing between the international neighbors over jobs and fish, Gov. Jay Inslee and all nine members of Washington’s congressional delegation denounced the mine in May and called for the U.S. State Department to stop it.