CHRISTOPHER SMITH Associated Press Writer
BOISE, Idaho An Idaho Indian tribe working to save the last of the largest freshwater fish in America has gone to court to challenge an environmental group that also is trying to prevent the endangered white sturgeon from becoming extinct. The Kootenai Tribe has asked a federal judge in Montana to allow it to join a lawsuit over the operation of Libby Dam, which controls the flow of the Kootenai River from Montana, across the Idaho Panhandle to Corra Lin Dam at the end of British Columbia’s Kootenay Lake. The 167-mile stretch of river is the only place where the mammoth fish which can grow as long as 19 feet and live for a century can be found. Since the dam was completed in 1974, the fish have never successfully reproduced in the river and an estimated 500 wild sturgeon remain, a number expected to drop to 50 by 2030. In May, the Center for Biological Diversity filed the latest in a series of lawsuits against the federal government, alleging the plan for the sturgeon’s recovery does not require enough water to be sent through Libby Dam to improve the sturgeon’s chances of reproducing and reverse its steady decline. The suit in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont., challenges the latest “biological opinion” on the sturgeon from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and seeks to force installation of additional turbines at Libby Dam to accommodate higher releases of water.
But Kootenai Tribal leaders and Idaho local government officials downstream say higher flows in the Kootenai will cause extensive flooding in the town of Bonners Ferry and riverside homes and farms. In mid-June, Libby Dam operators had to dump water over spillways to prevent the Koocanusa Reservoir from overflowing due to snowmelt and heavy rainfall. The record discharge sent the Kootenai to three feet above flood stage at Bonners Ferry, the highest it has been since the dam was built. Idaho authorities say the flooding caused more than $50 million in damage to farm fields, dikes and riverfront property. Hundreds of volunteers piled sandbags around the Kootenai tribe’s riverside casino and hotel to protect it from the advancing river. “Those releases from Libby Dam unnecessarily jeopardized this county,” said Dan Dinning, a commissioner of Idaho’s Boundary County, which is supporting the tribe’s intervention in the sturgeon lawsuit. “It’s easy for an out-of-state environmental group to say the dam operators should release more water for the fish, but they have no scientific proof it works and to put a whole river valley at risk is something as a commissioner I cannot accept.”
Center for Biological Diversity biologist Noah Greenwald of Portland, Ore., said during the high-water period last month, white sturgeon were seen in areas of the river favorable to spawning that they normally don’t visit because the water levels are not high enough. “There’s now evidence that increasing the flow does what we want it to do,” he said. “The tribe owns a lot of property at low elevation, including their casino, and we appreciate their concerns, but the flows that are proposed would not result in flooding in the classic sense.” Greenwald said the organization believes improvements to the existing levy and dike system along the river through Bonners Ferry would prevent a repeat of the seepage and flooding that occurred in June. Kootenai Tribal Attorney Billy Barquin said although the tribe does have fears of flood damage to property and cultural artifacts, its primary interest is saving the sturgeon. The tribe supports the latest Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion, contending its flexible “adaptive management” approach allows for experimentation with river channel reconstruction and creation of spawning habitat that may make additional flows from Libby Dam unnecessary. “While we don’t agree with everything the feds are saying, we think the habitat modifications are going to work best and we can get those implemented without as much damage as the high flows,” said Barquin. “Throwing this biological opinion out and making us do a new one is not what the species needs.”
U. S. District Judge Donald Molloy has yet to rule on whether the tribe can join the lawsuit. The state of Montana, which also opposes spilling additional water from Libby Dam, has also intervened in the case.