The Kootenai River flows down from Canada across northwest Montana and the Idaho Panhandle before turning northward back into Canada were it joins the Columbia River. It is the second largest, and from a fisheries standpoint, the most unique tributary of the Columbia River. Massive waterfalls in Montana and Canada have isolated native fish in the Lower Kootenai from the rest of the Columbia Basin for at least ten thousand years. In this time they have evolved into unique populations exquisitely adapted to the Kootenai’s flooding patterns.

For tens of thousands of years, as the winter snow pack melted in early summer sun, the Kootenai River swelled with swift, deep and relatively warm flood waters. In the winter, water levels dropped and became frigid as the precipitation turned from rain to snow. Ice covered large portions of the river creating a thermal barrier against the cold. In all seasons, life giving nutrients were transported by the river from the top of the watershed to the bottom. Since the completion of Libby Dam in 1975, however, the hydrology of the river has been turned upside down, wreaking havoc on the native fish whose lives depend on it.

Because the dam releases large amounts of water in the winter, winter flows are now 300% larger than natural. And the water is several degrees warmer, enough to retard the sheet ice under which the lower Kootenai River burbot spawns. The heavy flows meanwhile, prevent the laconic swimming burbot from moving upstream to its traditional spawning grounds. Once the mainstay of a large commercial fishery, the burbot is now about as close to extinction as a species can get: only 145 adults, one juvenile, and no larval burbot have been captured since 1993.

The dam has altered summer flows in the opposite direction. They are now much smaller because dam release are minimized to avoid crop damage within the floodplain. They are also colder because the water is released from deep within the reservoir rather than from the surface. These unnatural flows are unable to scour sand away and expose the rocky cobbles needed by Kootenai River white sturgeon to spawn. Nor is the water deep and swift enough to cue the sturgeon to migrate upstream to better habitat. The sticky sturgeon eggs instead become encased in sand and drift down river to die.

Neither the sturgeon nor the burbot has had a successful spawning season since the gates of Libby Dam closed in 1975. They will be extinct in a decade or two if natural river conditions are not restored.

Other native fish such as the westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout, and kokanee salmon are also imperiled, though not yet driven to the razor edge of extinction. But it is only a matter of time.


Kootenai River white sturgeon stopped spawning when Libby Dam was completed in 1975, destroying natural flooding patterns on the Kootenai River. If natural flooding patterns are not restored soon.

In December 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion declaring that Libby Dam is driving the Kootenai River white sturgeon extinct and harming bull trout populations. No conclusions were presented regarding the burbot, westslope trout, or salmon since they are not yet protected under the Endangered Species Act. The Fish & Wildlife Service presented the Army Corps of Engineers (the manager of the dam) with a series of mandatory conservation actions needed to save the sturgeon and reduce impacts to the bull trout. These steps would decrease winter water releases and increase spring and summer water releases according to a scientific water management plan called VARQ. The Corp of Engineers, however, has refused to implement the legally mandatory conservation measures, or to review the impacts of the dam on a river reach designated as “critical habitat” zone for the sturgeon.

The Army Corps’ recalcitrance is familiar. In 1995 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued a nearly identical decision that Libby Dam was driving the sturgeon extinct. Accordingly, it proposed a series of mandatory conservation measures. But, the Army Corps refused to implement the old conservation plan, just as it has failed to implement the new one. This time, however, the Center for Biological Diversity is prepared to sue the Corps on behalf of the sturgeon and all the other native fish which will benefit from more natural river conditions.


White sturgeons evolved nearly 400 million years ago and are the largest freshwater fish in North America. Kootenai River white sturgeon can reach 350 pounds. They were listed as endangered in 1994 and are rapidly approaching extinction.

The Kootenai River white sturgeon was listed as an endangered species on 06-09-94 in response to a petition by the Idaho Conservation League, Northern Idaho Audubon Society, and Boundary Backpackers. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service finalized a federal recovery plan for it in1999. But since the sturgeon’s historic spawning grounds were still not protected, the Center for Biological Diversity and Christians Caring for Creation filed suit on 6-30-99 to make the federal government map out and protect “critical habitat” areas.

The Fish & Wildlife Service eventually designated 11.2 miles of river below Bonners Ferry, ID as critical habitat. This area, however, is almost all sandy bottomed and thus is a deathtrap for sturgeon eggs. Nor is the deeply deposited sand likely to be scoured away since summer flood levels are not strong enough. Even if they were dramatically increased, water running through the critical habitat area is slowed down as it pushes into the upper end of Lake Kootenay. The only hope for the sturgeon is to attain enough water to move upstream out of the so-called “critical habitat” area to the rocky bottomed river stretches that begin at Bonners Ferry.

Why did the Fish & Wildlife Service designate this deathtrap as critical habitat? Because it is politically safe since the banks are already publicly owned and managed for wildlife by the State of Idaho. Protecting the truly important habitat will require a clash with upstream agribusiness interests which moved into the floodplain after Libby Dam was built.

graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
July 3, 2003
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