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Restoring the Kootenai River

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Restoring the Kootenai River

Tribe develops a master plan. Written by Kristin James

What factors are preventing Kootenai River white sturgeon and other native fish from thriving in today’s Kootenai River? What do you do to improve Kootenai River habitat for native aquatic species while at the same time working within the constraints posed by Libby Dam operations, infrastructure development, and agricultural development of the historical floodplain? How do you effectively address the many interrelated factors that are chipping away at the Kootenai River ecosystem’s capacity to function? How do you do this in a way that is socially and economically viable and consistent with the values of the local community?

These are some of the questions the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho’s recently completed “Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Project Master Plan,” which was funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, is designed to answer.

Susan Ireland, Director of the Kootenai Tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Department explained, “The Master Plan, which was released in July 2009, provides a framework for a broad-scale, ecosystem-based river habitat restoration project that will be implemented in the Idaho portion of the Kootenai River. The Master Plan is the first phase of a multi-phase project to plan for, design, and implement habitat restoration actions to benefit Kootenai River native fish, including Endangered Species Act listed Kootenai River white sturgeon.”

During the last century, the Kootenai River basin was modified by many human actions including agricultural development, construction of flood control levees, and construction and operation of Libby Dam. Although these modifications provided many economic and flood control benefits, over time they also severely limited the capacity of the ecosystem to provide suitable habitat for many species in the Kootenai River.

The Kootenai River and its species are central to Kootenai culture. “Our Tribal elders remind us that we Kootenai entered into a Covenant with the Creator-Spirit to guard and keep the land forever,” says Jennifer Porter, Chairperson of the Tribe. “This Master Plan will help lead us to a healthy ecosystem and the return of our Kootenai resources.”

The Master Plan was developed by the Kootenai Tribe under the guidance of the Kootenai Tribal Council and through a collaborative effort that included technical and policy level participation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the B.C. Ministry of Environment. In developing the Master Plan, the Tribe also sought and incorporated input from numerous technical experts. The U.S. Geological Survey, in particular, has provided extensive information about the Kootenai River, which has been critical to the development of the Master Plan. Additionally, communities along the Kootenai River were briefed during the Master Plan development through the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative and other community groups. “It is through sovereign collaboration and community outreach that we can ensure all governments with responsibility to the Kootenai ecosystem are working together in a way that makes sense for our communities,” said Kym Cooper, Kootenai Tribal Vice- Chairperson.

The Tribe’s Master Plan provides a detailed analysis of the factors limiting ecosystem function and management and infrastructure constraints for different river reaches within the project area. Based on this analysis, the Master Plan presents specific restoration strategies for each river reach that are designed to address those limiting factors and then identifies a suite of actions that could be combined to implement the restoration strategy for each reach.

The Master Plan also includes an analysis of how effective different habitat restoration actions would be, either as individual stand-alone actions, or combinations of actions. “One of the interesting things we learned through this Master Plan,” said Sue Ireland, “is that it is unlikely that any single action—for instance, increasing flow or just putting substrate in the river—will be able to adequately address the broad range of limiting factors. You need to combine a bunch of different actions together to solve the complex problems we’re looking at in the Kootenai River. In the Master Plan we present a framework for combining multiple actions for maximum benefit.”

The Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Project is also designed to compliment and enhance the benefits derived from related projects being implemented by the Tribe and other entities. In particular, the project is an essential companion to the Tribe’s conservation aquaculture program at the Tribal Sturgeon Hatchery near Bonners Ferry, which currently is preventing extinction of Kootenai River white sturgeon while habitat restoration is planned and implemented.

In addition to this habitat restoration plan, the Tribe will be completing the “Kootenai River Native Fish Conservation Aquaculture Master Plan” in early August 2009. This document will describe a number of critically needed upgrades to the Kootenai Sturgeon Hatchery as well as providing the conceptual design for a proposed new hatchery facility (the Twin Rivers Hatchery) that would be located at the confluence of the Moyie and Kootenai Rivers on tribally owned lands. The new Twin Rivers Hatchery would provide much needed additional rearing space for Kootenai sturgeon, allow sturgeon to imprint and home on waters upstream from the existing hatchery, and provide space to implement a conservation program for native burbot (there is not adequate physical space available in the existing Kootenai Sturgeon Hatchery).

In addition to helping to restore native fish populations, the Tribe believes implementation of the Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Project is likely to provide a variety of other important benefits to the local community. Those include addressing fish needs through methods that do not rely on increased flows which increase the risk of flooding, reducing rates of bank erosion, restoring natural vegetation along portions of the riverbank and floodplains, enhancing recreational opportunities, and creation of local jobs associated with on-the-ground restoration work.

The Tribe anticipates the Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Project will be implemented in sequenced phases over a number of years with the first round of project components targeted for implementation beginning in 2012. The next steps in the project will include additional targeted data collection and analysis, identification and prioritization of groups of potential habitat actions and sequences for implementation of project components, and completion of environmental analyses required by law. In addition, the Tribe plans to continue ongoing coordination, collaboration, and outreach with co-managers, agencies, community members and other stakeholders.

The Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Project Master Plan and additional support documentation are available at the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho’s website along with the Kootenai River Native Fish Conservation Aquaculture Program Master Plan.

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