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Tribe gets go-ahead on new hatchery

December 7, 2012
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Tuesday gave the go-ahead for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho to proceed with final design and begin construction on a $16.2 million project to upgrade an existing white sturgeon hatchery at Bonners Ferry, and build a new hatchery upstream to support both sturgeon and burbot restoration goals.

The Boundary County Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved the tribe's conditional use permit application to build the new hatchery at Twin Rivers Canyon Resort November 15.

The Council recommendation was made on the conditions that “Bonneville Power Administration and the Tribe providing to the Council the final costs, not to exceed $16.6 million, and confirmation of base upgrades and new facilities associated with the Kootenai River Native Fish Conservation Aquaculture Program, and confirm the out-year costs associated with O&M and M&E prior to construction.”

Both Sue Ireland, director of the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Program, and BPA Integrated Fish and Wildlife Program Director Bill Maslen, assured the Council those numbers would be forthcoming. Ireland said the tribe plans to begin construction this spring.

Maslen said that BPA “wanted to affirm our commitment” to the project.

“We will work that out,” he said of the final budget details. The Council reviews fish and wildlife projects that are proposed for funding. Bonneville, which markets power generated in the federal Columbia/Snake river hydro system, funds projects as mitigation for impacts resulting from the construction and operation of the 31 dams in the Federal Columbia River Power System.

In this case, much of the sturgeon work is mitigation for northwest Montana’s Libby Dam, which is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Habitat degradation and other factors have also contributed to the decline of Kootenai River native fish species such as the white sturgeon and burbot.

Both species have historically been vital to the Kootenai Tribes existence.

“But right now the Kootenai Tribes does not access either of these species for subsistence purposes,” Ireland said.

White sturgeon are the largest U.S. freshwater fish and can live 100 years. Burbot are the only freshwater members of the cod family. Declining populations of Kootenai River white sturgeon forced their 1994 listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Burbot numbers have declined drastically, to as few as 50, but the Kootenai population is not listed.

Biologists say that there has been virtually no natural recruitment into the wild adult sturgeon population for the past 50 years. The remaining fish – an estimated 1,000 in a 167-mile stretch of the river – spawn, but few if any of their progeny lives and grows.

“The next generation of sturgeon will be entirely from the hatchery,” Ireland said. To ward off extinction the tribe in 1988 proposed experimental sturgeon studies and aquaculture program. The Bonners Ferry facility was constructed in 1989 and, by mining eggs and milt from remaining wild fish, the first hatchery fish were produced in 1991. A certain number of the big fish are captured each year, spawned and released back into the river. The Kootenai female sturgeon are believed to spawn on average about once every five years.

The first large-scale release of young sturgeon took place in 2000 and have continued ever since. More than 200,000 hatchery sturgeon have been released, and the tribes have witnessed strong survival. The hope is that they will eventually grow to reproductive maturity – which takes about 30 years. In the meantime, the tribe is working on numerous habitat restoration projects aimed at improving spawning and survival prospects.

But for now the existing sturgeon hatchery is bursting at the seams, and the tribe and its biologists have a dream of successful artificial propagation of burbot, and eventual restoration of a sustainable, wild population.

The two-year construction project includes upgrades to the existing tribal sturgeon hatchery that allow improved broodstock handling, provide safety and efficiency and program flexibility.

Because there is no space to expand at the existing hatchery, a new hatchery – Twin Rivers – will be built about 10 miles upstream at the Kootenai’s confluence with the Moyie River. That will allow the expansion of the sturgeon program to meet both near- and long-term objectives.

The additional hatchery space will allow the collection of more wild broodstock while they are still available. The wild adult population is aging.

The tribe plans to increase rearing capacity for age 1-plus fish at temperatures and densities that optimize survival and improve fish health (reduce density-related disease).

The new hatchery will allow movement into a third phase of the tribe’s burbot restoration plan. The tribe in recent years has been working with the University of Idaho on the development of hatchery techniques for the spawning, incubation and rearing of burbot.

Phase 2 is ongoing too and involves experimental releases and research to evaluate burbot distribution, movement, habitat use, food habitats and sampling methods by life stage.

Phase 3 calls for larger production via construction of the hatchery to reestablish populations in the river. The Kootenai Tribe envisions ultimately reaching a Phase 4 – the existence of a self-sustaining population.

The NPCC’s three-step review process for the proposed hatchery upgrade and new facility construction began in 2007. It passed a big hurdle Sept. 28 with a shining endorsement from the Independent Scientific Review Panel.

“In sum, the ISRP notes that the sponsors have established objectives for the focal species; appreciate the need for an ecosystem level perspective in the restoration of sturgeon and burbot; have incorporated concepts from the ISAB food web report, and the ISRP recommendations for modeling capacity; and designed artificial production programs of limited scale that recognize the uncertainties of restoration,” according to the ISRP review of the project.

“Based on the documentation provided, the ISRP finds that the sponsors did a very good job of technically justifying and detailing their sturgeon and burbot programs. The ISRP recommends that the programs meet Step 2 requirements and can proceed to Step 3,” the ISRP said.

The Council took that step this week.
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