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Photo by Martha Bauer Photo by Martha Bauer

What's the future for Lake Pend Oreille's world-class fishery?

SANDPOINT, IDAHO – The world record Gerard rainbow trout (or kamloops) came from Lake Pend Oreille some 60 years ago. It weighed over 37 pounds. A 30-pounder caught by Randi Herron won the Lake Pend Oreille Idaho Club’s K & K Derby last spring. But the big “patch fish,” as they are called, have been fewer and fewer in recent years and the prospect for their survival has dimmed because of the diminished kokanee population.

    Kokanee salmon, which washed into the lake in the 1930s from Flathead Lake in Montana, sustained the greatest kamloops fishery in the world for several decades. Other species, like bull trout and lake trout (mackinaw), also thrived on the plentiful small salmon, but their numbers have dropped precipitously since the 1960s, and most especially in 1997, causing fishery managers to sound the alarm about Lake Pend Oreille’s world class fishery.

    The two events that had the biggest effects on the kokanee were beginning the wintertime draw down of the lake level, a practice that exposed critical spawning habitat year after year for 40 years, and the massive flood following the record snowfall in the winter of 1996/97.

Since the `60s, when kokanee in Lake Pend Oreille numbered between six and eight million and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began operating Albeni Falls Dam at Priest River for the draw down, that population has plummeted. The Corps placed greater emphases on power production and downstream flood control and started to take the lake down to an elevation of 2051 feet, or ten and a half feet below summer full pool. A steady decline ensued until under a quarter of a million kokanee remained by the mid-80s.

    Kokanee experienced a small comeback in the early `90s, as the population climbed to more than one million in 1993.

    But in 1996 it began snowing in early November and never quit until the following May. Twenty to 30 feet fell in the valleys and a great deal more in the high country, and when it all melted the Clark Fork River filled to overflowing and washed unknown numbers of fish out of the lake and down the Pend Oreille River. But what did come to be known in the summer of `97 is that the kokanee population hit its lowest level ever at under 100,000 fish, or less than half a percent of its glory days in the early 1960s.

    Because kokanee are the primary food source for the big sport fish in the lake, how goes the kokanee, so goes the kamloops. “Trophy rainbow are totally dependent on kokanee,” wrote Idaho Fish and Game biologist Ned Horner in the November 2001 newsletter of the Lake Pend Oreille Idaho Club (LPOIC). “Lake trout will likely replace rainbow if kokanee collapse. We can rebuild the rainbow fishery quickly with regulation reform and stocking, but only if we save kokanee first.”

    The effort to save kokanee gelled quickly in February 2000 when, wrote Horner, “The kokanee fishery was closed for the first time in history and rainbow and lake trout limits were liberalized to encourage harvest of kokanee predators.”

    The latter was a tough pill for many anglers to swallow, though. For years members of LPOIC and biologists from Fish and Game had encouraged fishermen to practice catch-and-release, particularly of the big kamloops, as a means of keeping the fishery thriving. To expect them to start keeping the rainbows would require convincing them of the long-term danger to those big fish if kokanee disappeared from the lake.

    The short-term solution of harvesting as many big trout as possible in order to reduce the number of predators feeding on kokanee has only partially succeeded.

    “There is still a strong catch-and-release philosophy associated with rainbow trout,” Horner explained. “Rainbow anglers released 60% of the fish they caught in 2000. Predation by rainbow trout poses the greatest threat to the continued existence of kokanee in Lake Pend Oreille, yet anglers are unwilling to reduce the rainbow population in the short term to maintain the long term viability of kokanee and every other fishery that depends on them.”

    It’s important to understand the short term value of harvesting predatory fish when considering the long term well-being of kokanee in the lake. The more significant threat remains unresolved: that of maintaining a higher winter lake level so kokanee can successfully spawn. So far, the Corps of Engineers has favored the draw down to 2051 feet in order to provide the Pend Oreille Public Utility District in eastern Washington with more electricity and to lessen the threat of flooding to downstream farmers along the Pend Oreille River.

    Another claim to Lake Pend Oreille’s water has recently surfaced as well, according to Ford Elsaesser, an attorney in Sandpoint who is representing LPOIC in what they refer to as the “lake level lawsuit.” In the club’s November newsletter, Elsaesser wrote, “Lake Pend Oreille is under siege from two distinct sources. An adequate winter lake level...is under constant threat by downstream power generation demands...” And he added, “The entire ecological and economic well being of the lake is further threatened by downstream requests from the “salmon managers,” who are now looking at Lake Pend Oreille as yet another reservoir they can manipulate to augment flows for Columbia River salmon.”

    The central issue is water and how much of it is kept in the lake and how much is released through Albeni Falls Dam. Elsaesser asserts that the Corps, beginning in the early `60s, “began to manage Lake Pend Oreille much more for power production than for the other multiple uses provided in the enabling legislation and Senate Document #9...;” other uses such as recreation, navigation, erosion control, fisheries, and at the time the dam came on line, a healthy commercial kokanee fishery.

    Senate Document #9 is what Elsaesser described as “the Bible for operations of the Albeni Falls dam.” And he argues the Corps is not following its guidelines. The use of litigation has succeeded in requiring the Corps to keep the lake level at 2055’ or 2053’ over the past several years, but these victories for LPOIC have only been short term in nature.

    “In a series of three lawsuits that the Lake Pend Oreille Idaho Club filed over the past six years with the strong political help of the Governor’s office and the Idaho congressional delegation, particularly Senator Crapo’s office, we have been able to reach interim agreements that have reduced, but have not in any way eliminated, these threats,” Elsaesser said.

    The immediate future for kokanee is somewhat brighter than it has been in recent years. John Rankin, manager of the Cabinet Gorge Fish Hatchery near Clark Fork, related in LPOIC’s newsletter that 13,522,720 kokanee eggs were collected last year and more than 12 million fish were released back into the lake last June. “That,” he wrote, “is an 89.6% survival rate, which is the highest on record since the hatchery was put in operation.” Rankin noted that those fingerlings have not yet attained the four to six-inch size that lake trout and rainbows prefer, so how they fare through the next couple of years will have a huge impact on the survival of the species in the lake.

    Horner made the point that survival rates for one to two-year old kokanee were typically over 80% when there were greater numbers of them in the lake. However, that survival rate dropped to 50% during the 1997 flood and was less than 20% by 1999.

    “Seven months of predator reduction in 2000 did not result in any meaningful improvement in kokanee survival,” he added.

    And there’s more bad news, this concerning the adult kokanee run this year. “It don’t look good,” Rankin said. “Depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, predictions range from a low of one million eggs and a high of seven million eggs for the hatchery.” And he added that predictions for 2003 are even lower, indicating it will be tough times for kokanee in Lake Pend Oreille for several years to come.

    “The kokanee population is collapsing,” Horner wrote in the LPOIC newsletter. It was a statement highlighted in bold, underlined letters. “Increased fry production in 2000 and 2001 won’t help if predation is not reduced on age 1-2 fish. As the kokanee population declines, it becomes increasingly likely a total collapse will occur and much more difficult to recover.”

    For more information about the lake level lawsuit or kokanee and to learn more about the Lake Pend Oreille Idaho Club, visit their website at www.lpoic.org, write to P.O. Box 1589, Sandpoint, ID 83864, or call 208-263-0424. LPOIC is an organization with over 900 members. Levi Hubbard is president.


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Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

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