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Holistic: Restoring 55 Miles Of Kootenai River Habitat For ESA-Listed Sturgeon, All Native Species
Posted on Friday, May 04, 2012 (PST)

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho is in the second year of implementing a top-down approach to restoring and improving Kootenai River habitat for white sturgeon and other native species.


The Kootenai habitat project aims to restore 55 miles of river habitat of over a 7-10 year span. Federal officials estimate that the overall cost will range from $30 million to $50 million.


The “top” is the upper braided reach of the river, which extends nearly four river miles from the Moyie River confluence with the Kootenai downstream to the upstream extent of the backwater influence from British Columbia’s Kootenay Lake. The Kootenai River flows south from Canada, across the northwest part of Montana and over Kootenai Falls into the Idaho Panhandle and then north into Kootenay Lake.


The tribe’s website about the project:


The two projects completed this past fall will help create additional cover for juvenile fish, off-channel and pool habitat for rearing and resting, more diverse aquatic habitat, and increased floodplain connections.


Specific actions included restoration of 1,600 linear feet of mainstem bank, restoration and re-grading of 2,800 linear feet of side channel, creation of three side channel pools, placement of 2,600 linear feet of large wood in the side channel, and construction and restoration of 8.5 acres of floodplain and wetlands.


In addition, approximately 5,400 native plants were planted to restore riparian habitat, and 5,000 linear feet of fencing was installed to prevent grazing along the river edge and protect the new riparian plantings.  


The goal of the program is to restore river habitat conditions that will support all life stages of Kootenai River white sturgeon, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, as well as other native fish such burbot, kokanee, redband trout, westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout. 


The tribe is now working to complete the design and permitting for the next two river restoration projects in the lower braided reach of the Kootenai River with construction scheduled to begin in September 2012. Braided Reach 2 extends approximately 2.2 river miles (from the upstream extent of the backwater, downstream to the U.S. Highway 95 Bridge at Bonners Ferry, Idaho.


A Phase 3 planned later will include work in Meander Reach 1 and Meander Reach 2. The river’s so-called “straight reach” extends 1.1 river miles from the U.S. Highway 95 Bridge, downstream to Ambush Rock.


The combined meander reaches extend from the downstream end of Ambush Rock to Kootenay Lake. Meander reach 1 begins at Ambush Rock and extends 9.7 river miles downstream to slightly below Shorty’s Island. Meander reach 2 spans 35.5 miles from the end of Meander Reach 1 to the international border.


The Kootenai River subbasin has over the past century been modified by agriculture, logging, mining and flood control and power generation actions. The Kootenai was confined by the construction of Libby Dam in Montana, which created Koocanusa Reservoir, and Corra Linn Dam downstream in British Columbia, which impounds Kootenay Lake. The Kootenai eventually pours into the Columbia River in British Columbia before it turns south and flows into the United States.


Levees were built along the Kootenai on top of natural sand levees for flood control, limiting the hydrologic connection between the Kootenai River and its floodplain. More than 50,000 acres of floodplain were converted to agricultural fields, resulting in the loss of riparian and wetland plant and animal species, and the related functions that normally supported the ecosystem.


In 1972 Libby Dam began operations effectively reducing annual peak flows by half and disrupting the natural hydrograph. These modifications resulted in unnatural flow fluctuations and changes to the temperature regime in the Kootenai River and its floodplain.


The restoration work is meant to some degree to turn back the clock and restore conditions more conducive to natural sturgeon recruitment, the processes of young fish hatching out in-river and growing to spawning age themselves. Tribal, state and federal biologists estimate that natural recruitment has been almost nonexistent in recent decades. Kootenai sturgeon began declining in the 1970s and today there are only about 1,000 to 1,500 fish left, according to the tribe.


The tribe is taking a holistic approach to river restoration by improving habitat for all native fish including sturgeon.


“We realized that in order to restore sturgeon we have to look at all the connected pieces that support the ecosystem including a functional food web and a range of complex habitats that meet the needs of many different species,” according to Sue Ireland, the tribe’s fish and wildlife director. “Basically, in order to help the sturgeon you have to try help all the other fish species, and if you focus only on one species you might inadvertently harm the others.”


In July 2009 the Kootenai Tribe completed the “Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Program Master Plan” to help address cumulative losses. The plan includes restoration strategies to address factors limiting Kootenai sturgeon and other native fish populations in each reach of the project area, a suite of restoration treatments, conceptual implementation scenarios, and a monitoring and adaptive management framework.


Using the master plan, the tribe is working collaboratively with agency partners and co-managers, a team of independent technical advisers, private landowners, and the local community to develop, design and implement the interconnected projects that will make up the restoration program.


“It’s warranted,” Bonneville Power Administration project manager Lee Watts said of the restoration effort, which is prodded to some degree by the ESA biological opinion developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to judge the impact of dam operations on listed sturgeon. BPA, which markets power generated in the federal Columbia-Snake river power system, funds much of the restoration work.


“We’d like to solve the riddle and get these fish to start naturally recruiting,” Watts said.


“Even five years ago this looked like a pie in the sky” idea but the tribe and other involved entities believe that, with adaptive management along the way, they are on the right path, Watts said.


He said as much as $14 million will be spent on the project over the next two years, fiscal 2012 and 2013.


“How much of that gets on the ground is uncertain,” Watts said of implementation that involves project planning, permitting and other elements as well as on-the-ground work. “It’s a big project.”


The tribe has made it a point to engage, and gain the support of, local landowners and the community.


“Our local landowners have been fantastic to work with,” said Ireland.  Construction of the restoration projects has also been beneficial to the local community, providing work for local contractors and material suppliers, as well as ripple benefits throughout the economy. 


“The collaborative help of agency and co-manager partners both in and outside of the Kootenai subbasin has been critical, including help managing flows during the very short in-water work window,” said Ireland.


The work aims to address a range of limiting factors including: bank erosion and fine sediment inputs to downstream reaches, lack of cover for juvenile fish, lack of off-channel habitat for rearing, insufficient depth for Kootenai sturgeon migration, lack of mainstem hydraulic complexity in the form of variable depth and velocity, insufficient pool frequency, simplified food web, lack of surfaces that support riparian recruitment, loss of floodplain connection, lack of coarse substrate for Kootenai sturgeon egg attachment and larval hiding, lack of bank vegetation, lack of off-channel habitat, lack of fish passage into tributaries, and grazing and floodplain land use.


Program targets over the next 7-10 years are habitat treatments that will include: about 26,000 linear feet of mainstem bank restoration, restoration of approximately 31,700 linear feet of side-channels, creation or enhancement of approximately 16 pools, placement of about 82 large wood structures, construction and restoration of 96 acres of floodplain and wetlands, enhancement of about 14,000 square feet of spawning substrate for Kootenai sturgeon, restoration of approximately 11,700 linear feet of tributaries, fish passage barrier removal, approximately 11.7 miles of riparian buffer fencing, and extensive revegetation work. 


The program includes extensive monitoring and evaluation of the physical response to the projects and an adaptive management program that will help to incorporate biological monitoring conducted by the Kootenai Tribe, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the British Columbia Ministry of Forests Land Natural Resource Operations, and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks in the adaptive analysis of the program.


The program complements the Kootenai Tribe’s sturgeon conservation aquaculture program which is currently preventing extinction of Kootenai River white sturgeon, and will also complement the tribe’s proposed native burbot conservation aquaculture program. It also complements other projects and programs in the Kootenai subbasin including the tribe’s nutrient restoration project, co-manager research and habitat restoration projects in the United States and Canada, coordinated sturgeon flows, and the temperature management efforts conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Libby Dam. The Corps operates the dam.


Bonneville has provided funding for the planning and design work associated with development of the master plan, implementation of the first two projects in 2011, development of design concepts for the overall program, and development of designs for the projects slated for implementation in 2012. Much of the work is reviewed by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and channeled through its fish and wildlife program.


The tribe also received funding for implementation of the 2011 projects from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality through a Section 319 grant.


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