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With Threat Of Lawsuit, Idaho Suspends Steelhead Angling Until Obtains Incidental Take Permit
Posted on Friday, November 30, 2018 (PST)

Idaho is suspending angling for steelhead in Idaho until it can obtain an incidental take permit from NOAA Fisheries that would legally allow the state to reopen the fishing.


The Dec. 7 closure includes Snake River tributaries as well as Snake River boundary waters, but only for anglers holding Idaho fishing licenses. Anglers with Oregon and Washington licenses will continue to be permitted to fish for steelhead on the Snake River in areas where Idaho shares a boundary with those states.


This could be the first time that Idaho, Oregon and Washington fishing license holders will not have the same fishing rights in the Snake River boundary waters that separate the states, according to Lance Hebdon, Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s anadromous fishery manager.


“We work very closely with Oregon and Washington fisheries staff to try to ensure consistent regulations,” Hebdon said. “To the best of my knowledge this is the first time Idaho has had a closure that was not accompanied by similar action from Washington and Oregon.


“This is very simply due to the Idaho steelhead fishery closure in response to a procedural issue with Idaho's fishery permit and the Notice of Intent to file a lawsuit against the state of Idaho and not a conservation or harvest sharing concern.”


IDFG said it has been operating without an incidental take permit since 2010 but continued to offer the steelhead angling as it worked with federal fisheries managers.


Six environmental groups delivered to the state a 60-day notice of their intention to file a lawsuit alleging that Idaho is illegally allowing recreational angling for summer steelhead, particularly for the larger wild B-run steelhead. Snake River wild summer steelhead was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1997.


The groups notified Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, as well as officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Idaho Commission on Oct. 9. The groups threatening the lawsuit are Conservation Angler, Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater, Wild Fish Conservancy, Wild Salmon Rivers and Snake River Waterkeeper.


(See CBB, October 12, 2018, “Groups Issue Notice To Sue Over Steelhead Fishing In Idaho; Say Harming Wild Summer Steelhead,”


After a settlement offer by Idaho was rejected by the groups – the settlement offer would have left fishing for hatchery steelhead open in the state while NOAA completed the permitting process – the Commission decided at its Nov. 14 meeting to suspend fishing under the threat of the lawsuit until it can obtain the federal permit, according to an open letter to steelhead anglers by Fish and Game Commission Director Virgil Moore.


The Nov. 14 “Letter to steelhead anglers from F&G Director Virgil Moore” is at


The groups alleged in their 60-day notice that the state allows “sport fisheries that harm and prevent the recovery of wild Snake River Basin steelhead, including the iconic but critically low wild B-run steelhead.”


On the other hand, IDFG contends in a news release that “operating the steelhead season as it traditionally has by allowing the harvest of hatchery steelhead while requiring the release of wild steelhead is not a conservation issue.” It says it intends to reopen the steelhead fishing season when it gets the permit in early 2019, potentially by March.


“Having been involved in steelhead management as a professional biologist, and being a steelhead fisherman for over 40 years, I’m well aware how important steelhead fishing is to Idaho anglers and local economies,” Moore said. “The loss of that opportunity, even temporarily, due to a lawsuit over an unprocessed permit, is truly regrettable.


“For whatever reason, these groups singled out Idaho for their lawsuit threat, and because there is not a biological basis to close steelhead fisheries in the Snake River basin, fisheries in the Snake River boundary waters remain open to anglers licensed in Oregon and Washington in compliance with those states’ rules, and tribal steelhead fisheries in Idaho will also continue,” Moore said.


In 2010, prior to expiration of the previous permit with NOAA Fisheries, Idaho had submitted a Fishery Monitoring and Evaluation Plan for hatchery steelhead fisheries to renew the incidental take permit.


“The necessary permit was not issued at the time due to a backlog of other permits being processed by the federal agency,” the IDFG news release says. “Fish and Game officials have conducted these fisheries consistent with this plan and previous permits in coordination with National Marine Fisheries Service.”


The conservation groups also noted that the 2018 Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion does not authorize incidental take of these fish in Idaho.


If they were to file the suit in federal District Court as noticed, the groups want the Idaho Commission to close the sport fishery for all summer steelhead, seek reciprocity with Oregon for angling along the Snake River border, stop recycling hatchery steelhead where they could spawn in the wild (some arrive at hatcheries and are recycled into streams for more angling), and stop taking wild steelhead into hatcheries in Oregon, Washington and Idaho for broodstock.


Current Idaho regulations allow anglers a one hatchery steelhead bag limit and require that all wild steelhead are returned to the river.


Catch-and-release impacts to wild steelhead are minimal, Idaho says. “The best-available science suggests that of every 100 wild steelhead that enter Idaho rivers, about three will die as a result of angler encounters. This is a low level of incidental-take mortality that does not jeopardize long-term recovery of wild steelhead populations.”


The number of steelhead returning to Idaho this year is far below the 10-year average. Some 52,932 steelhead have passed Lower Granite Dam, the upstream of the four lower Snake River dams, as of Nov. 25, and 11,936 of those are wild steelhead. The 10-year average is three times that tally at 157,336 and with 41,843 of those being wild fish. Last year on the same date 75,857 steelhead had passed the dam, with 14,618 wild.


Idaho has long been a leader in wild steelhead conservation. In total over 4,200 miles of the 5,000 miles of wild steelhead spawning and rearing habitat in Idaho is regularly closed to steelhead fishing, IDFG says. This includes areas such as the Middle Fork and South Fork Salmon rivers and the Selway and Lochsa rivers.


NOAA recently published Idaho’s Steelhead Fishery Monitoring and Evaluation Plan for a 30-day public comment period that ends Dec. 6. NOAA’s public comment page for Idaho's Steelhead Fishery FMEP is at


Also see:


-- CBB, September 14, 2018, “Salmonid Fishing Closed On The Columbia River; 2018 A Bad Year For Salmon Returns,”


--CBB, August 17, 2018,”WDFW Restricts Fisheries On Columbia River, Two Tributaries To Support Steelhead Run,”


-- CBB, Aug. 10, 2018, “Hot Water Temperatures Prompt Oregon/Washington To Close Deschutes, Yakima River Mouths To Fishing,”

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