Landmark Settlement Gives White Sturgeon a Glimmer of Hope

By Beacon Staff

The Kootenai River white sturgeon is one of the most intriguing, and some would say bizarre, fish in North America, with a history that extends beyond multiple ice ages. The extinction of the dinosaurs couldn’t take it out, but the 20th century nearly did. Now, following a landmark agreement in September between six groups with a stake in the Kootenai River’s future and in the wellbeing of its unique white sturgeon population, the 21st century has brought a ray of light for a prehistoric fish on the brink of extinction.

The settlement, filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, follows years of lawsuits and bureaucratic wrangling involving a number of groups from Idaho and Montana, Canada and the U.S. federal government. The six entities named in the settlement were the Bonneville Power Administration, the Center for Biological Diversity, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Montana, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.

At the heart of the negotiations is Libby Dam, located on the Kootenai River less than 20 miles upstream from Libby. It forms Lake Koocanusa and is operated by the Corps of Engineers. The settlement essentially maps out what dam operators can and should do to ensure the recovery of the downstream white sturgeon by clarifying portions of a past FWS biological opinion. The agreement calls for a habitat restoration plan as well.

Also, the state of Montana, as part of the settlement, will grant a variance in dissolved gas standards for the Kootenai River if necessary. Previously, state officials had repeatedly resisted allowing a test spill from the dam’s spillways to see what effect it would have on improving sturgeon habitat. Officials argued that spills would create gas levels in the river higher than is allowed by state standards.

Biologists think the agreement is a major turning point in the fate of the Kootenai sturgeon, which has been listed as endangered since 1994.

“Many scientists think we’re in an extinction crisis and the Kootenai sturgeon are part of this,” said Noah Greenwald, science director for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “(The settlement) is a big step forward for us.”

Kootenai’s Unique Sturgeon

There’s no fish like the sturgeon in the world, and there’s no sturgeon like the Kootenai River white sturgeon, a naturally landlocked bottom feeder that has long been revered by the Kootenai Indians. There are more than 20 species of sturgeon in the world, including the Caspian Sea beluga variety, long coveted for its roe to be made into caviar. The Kootenai sturgeon were separated from other populations of white sturgeon at the end of the last ice age when the retreat of glaciers formed a waterfall at Bonnington Falls, British Columbia, thus cutting off their historic path to the Pacific Ocean.

Sturgeon can live to be more than 100 years old. By comparison, the typical lifespan of trout is fewer than 10 years. The Kootenai white sturgeon’s cousins on the Pacific coast can grow to more than 1,500 pounds and 15 feet. The Kootenai sturgeon, on the other hand, tops out closer to nine feet and 300 pounds, which is still massive for a freshwater fish.

White sturgeon are opportunistic bottom feeders that eat about whatever comes their way, using “a mouth that’s like a vacuum cleaner,” according to Sue Ireland, the Kootenai Tribe’s Fish and Wildlife director. They eat a variety of fish, including kokanee salmon, as well as insects, crustaceans and plants.

But over the years, vital nutrients such as phosphorous have been depleted in the Kootenai River, as have their traditional spawning grounds near Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho. The Kootenai sturgeon population has been dissipating at a clip of nearly 10 percent per year. Fishing, pollution, development and agriculture have all contributed to the decline, but the foremost culprit, biologists say, is Libby Dam.

Libby Dam

Libby Dam, completed in 1974, is more than 400 feet tall and 3,000 feet long. It produces electricity, which is sold by the Bonneville Power Administration. The dam also forms recreational opportunities along and on Lake Koocanusa. While a feat of construction, Libby Dam dramatically altered the habitat downstream, including nutrient flows and, most notably, the make-up of the riverbed.

Over time, the change in water flows and temperatures covered much of the rocky bottom with silt and sand, which suffocates sturgeon eggs after they’re laid. Successful spawning in the wild has been virtually nonexistent since.

Today a small number of white sturgeon spawn in a short stretch of river downstream of Bonner’s Ferry. Ireland said it’s not clear whether the sturgeon spawned upstream in Montana before the dam or not, but she said the Kootenai Tribal Sturgeon Hatchery has been planting thousands of juvenile sturgeon in Montana, as well as Idaho, with the hopes of future spawning. White sturgeon officially occupy the river all the way up to Kootenai Falls in Montana.

Greenwald points out that the sturgeon aren’t alone in their decline in the Kootenai River system, noting that burbot, bull trout and rainbow trout are also in trouble, which he says “is a tragedy.”

“It’s indicative of the decline of the river overall,” Greenwald added. “It’s a fairly bleak situation.”

Conservation, Litigation and Settlement
For all practical purposes, conservation efforts began in 1979 when Montana banned sturgeon fishing and Idaho followed soon after. But the big push began in 1991 with the completion of the Kootenai hatchery, which has released thousands of juvenile sturgeon into the wild. The tribe’s Fish and Wildlife program has also been instrumental in researching habitat conditions.

The juvenile fish are tagged and biologists monitor their movement and survival rates, which Ireland said are 60 percent through the first year and 90 percent thereafter. None of the released fish, however, have reached the mature spawning age of 25 to 30 years old, so Ireland said it’s impossible to know how many of those fish will be able to spawn in the wild, which is the ultimate goal. The Kootenai Tribe, along with operating the hatchery, is in charge of carrying out a habitat restoration plan and will have a master plan completed by the end of the year.

“White sturgeon have a cultural and a spiritual significance for the tribe,” Ireland said. “They are revered for their longevity.”

Much of the past decade has been marked by squabbles between environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Corps and FWS. Initial debate centered around a critical habitat designation and the adequacy of measures taken by the Corps to stay true to that designation, with Greenwald contending that the Corps “dragged its feet” and was “incredibly inept.” When discussion turned to releasing substantially more water from the dam via spillways, Montana and the Kootenai Tribe also intervened, on opposite sides, to protect their interests.

As it stands, the Corps will continue its efforts to maintain consistent water temperatures and find appropriate water flows through 2009. If those efforts are deemed insufficient by the various groups, the Corps may be authorized to release water in its spillways. Meanwhile, the Kootenai Tribe will work on its habitat restoration plan.

Greg Hoffman, a fisheries biologist for the Corps, said by using better technology and learning from past efforts, the Corps has figured out how to maintain consistent water temperatures over the past three years. That consistency, he said, is an encouraging sign for the future of sturgeon recovery.

“We’ve really got a handle on that consistent temperature, which really kind of emulates what happened pre-dam,” Hoffman said, “just trying to copy what Mother Nature did prior to the dam.”

With the historic agreement, Ireland marvels at how far recovery efforts have come.

“It’s grown from a small, low-capital project to a central project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife,” Ireland said.

Kootenai River

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