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Kootenai River white sturgeon

Seattle Post-Intellegencer, July 9, 2008

Feds approve critical sturgeon habitat
By Nicholas K. Geranios
Associated Press writer

SPOKANE, Wash. -- A federal government agency on Wednesday approved a plan to set aside more than 18 miles of the Kootenai River as critical habitat for white sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in North America.

The move is intended to improve the spawning prospects for a genetically distinct species of the fish that is found only in parts of north Idaho, northwest Montana and southeast British Columbia. Kootenai sturgeon have not successfully spawned since the mid-1970s.

The final rule by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, effective Aug. 8, makes two changes from a proposal issued in 2006.

It changes the minimum depth for spawning site selection from 16 feet to 23 feet and clarifies that 7.1 miles of critical habitat is being added to a designation of 11.2 river miles made in 2001 for a total of 18.3 miles. The protected area begins below the confluence with the Moyie River and extends downstream near Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

The Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Ore. challenged the initial habitat designation as too small.

"The sturgeon is on the brink of extinction and desperately needs restoration of critical habitat to survive," center spokesman Noah Greenwald said.

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.

Kootenai sturgeon can grow to 19 feet long, weigh 350 pounds and live for a century.

The fish require large spring river flows, low water temperatures and a gravel riverbed to spawn successfully. Spawning has been unsuccessful since Libby Dam in Montana was built in 1974, drastically reducing spring river flows.

Kootenai sturgeon have been listed as endangered since 1994.

Their total range covers about 167 miles, from Kootenai Falls, Mont., upstream to Corra Linn Dam at the outflow from Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, the source of the river.

The sturgeon population, decreasing at a rate of 9 percent a year in the river, remains threatened by dam operations, flood control and water quality degradation, which hurt spawning, egg incubation and the rearing of young, the agency said.

The Endangered Species Act requires the designation of habitat that is critical to the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and that may require special management or protection. The designation does not change land ownership or establish a refuge, but federal agencies that plan activities that may affect critical habitat are required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service first.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton