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Kootenai River white sturgeon

Seattle Post-Intellegencer, September 2, 2008

Deal reached on Kootenai sturgeon
By Nicholas K. Geranios, Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash.-- Environmentalists have reached an agreement with government agencies intended to help the endangered Kootenai River white sturgeon spawn for the first time since the 1970s, the parties said Tuesday.

The deal will end six years of litigation over efforts to save the largest freshwater fish in North America. The sturgeon, which can grow to 19 feet long, are found only in northern Idaho, northwest Montana and southeast British Columbia. Kootenai sturgeon have not successfully spawned since the mid-1970s, when Libby Dam was completed.

“We hope this leads to recovery,” said Noah Greenwald, science director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “This historic agreement helps give the sturgeon a shot at survival.”

The deal involves the center, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, the state of Montana, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration. It has been submitted to a federal judge in Missoula, Mont., for his approval.

The sturgeon were listed as endangered in 1994 because of operations of the dam, plus water quality degradation and loss of habitat.

The estimated 500 Kootenai sturgeon are believed to have been isolated from other white sturgeon since the last Ice Age. There are 24 species of sturgeon worldwide, and most are threatened with extinction. The local population has been decreasing at an estimated rate of 9 percent per year.

Under the agreement, the corps will continue to operate Libby Dam flows in a way to mimic ideal conditions for sturgeon spawning. If those measures are not successful, the corps will increase the fl ows.

In the longer term, the parties agreed to support a project intended to restore habitat so it is conducive to sturgeon recovery. The Kootenai Tribe, with funding from the federal agencies, will carry out that project. “The sturgeon are central to Kootenai culture,” said Kym Cooper, Kootenai Tribe vice chairwoman.

The most recent lawsuit, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild West Institute, challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion regarding the effects of Libby Dam operations on the sturgeon.

The other parties intervened in the lawsuit.

“Montana will do all it can to protect our fish and people above and below Libby Dam,” said Bruce Measure, who represents Montana on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

In July, the federal government approved a plan to set aside more than 18 miles of the Kootenai River as critical habitat for white sturgeon. The protected area begins below the confluence with the Moyie River and extends downstream near Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

The fish require large spring river flows, low water temperatures and a gravel riverbed to spawn successfully.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton