Since the time of the dinosaurs, about 70 million years ago, sturgeons have remained essentially unchanged — large, impressive fish that can live to be 100. But the longevity of the sturgeon in the Kootenai River is waning: It hasn’t reproduced in real numbers in at least 30 years due to habitat change caused by Libby Dam, which shut its gates in 1975. The dam has reduced spring peak flows by more than 50 percent and increased winter flows by nearly 300 percent — a regime that’s forcing fish to spawn over areas with a sandy bottom, where their eggs become encased in sand and drift downriver to die. Without better management, the species could be extinct in 20 years.
In 1999, five years after the sturgeon was designated as an endangered species, the Center filed suit to get the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare critical habitat for the fish. The Service came back with a proposal to designate 11.2 miles of already-protected river miles as critical habitat — an area with a sandy bottom, which is a deathtrap for sturgeon eggs. In 2003, we sued the Service to force it to designate more appropriate critical habitat. We also sued the Army Corps of Engineers to force it to change the dam’s operation to allow the sturgeon to survive.
The Center won the suit for more critical habitat, and the Service published an interim rule protecting an additional area — with good sturgeon spawning habitat — in 2006, finalizing the rule in 2008. Also in 2008, after almost six years of litigation, the Center, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and state and federal officials reached a landmark agreement to manage Libby Dam’s flows to help sturgeon reproduce, keep them reproducing, and protect other Kootenai River fish at the same time.
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