Kootenai tribe working to restore their namesake river

    Juvee White sturgeon
    The white sturgeon is a intricate component of the Kootenai River restoration project.

    by Michael McLaskey

    The Kootenai tribe of Idaho (KTI) is working on one of the largest habitat enhancement projects in North America, an effort to restore a 55-mile stretch of the Kootenai River. Historic development and changes in the Kootenai River basin have caused issues for several species of resident wildlife, and this ambitious project is hoping to improve those species’ chances for survival by addressing these changes.

    The Kootenai River begins in the Canadian Rockies, flows south through Bonner’s Ferry, turns north and flows back into Canada and eventually drains into the Columbia River. One of the river’s residents is the Kootenai River white sturgeon (KRWS), and it is an endangered species.

    The Kootenai River white sturgeon is of particular cultural and spiritual significance for the Kootenai tribe, but this project isn’t for their benefit only. “The Kootenai River is home to many species that are either threatened or in decline,” said Kootenai Tribal Fish & Wildlife Department director Susan Ireland. Burbot, kokanee, westslope cutthroat and bull trout all call this river home. This is why the Kootenai tribe is looking at this as a “holistic, ecosystem-based restoration project.”

    Kootenai tribal elders tell the story of the beginning of time, where they were created by supreme being Quilxka Nupika, in order to guard and keep the land forever. This project falls under their cultural heritage, and allows them to keep their covenant.


    While many experts point to the Libby Dam upstream in Montana as a continuing source of issues for KRWS, the sturgeon’s problems began long before as overfishing brought them to the edge of extinction. In 1990, the Kootenai tribal authorities started releasing hatchery fish into the river to allay their decline. It is though that without the Kootenai Tribe Native Fish Aquaculture program, KRWS would be extinct today.

    The Libby Dam has been affecting the Kootenai River downstream ever since it began operations in the mid-70s. The dam is maintained for hydroelectricity and flood control, and flows are higher in the winter than they used to be. It’s estimated that the dam traps 60 percent of the phosphorus necessary to maintain a vital ecosystem downstream.


    The restoration plan took a long time to prepare. The Kootenai tribe started doing surveys and began consulting with various agencies in 2002. In July 2009 the Kootenai tribe unveiled the master plan, which organized the restoration project into three distinct phases.

    Construction completed in early November 2011, fell under phase one of the project. Most of the focus on this phase was stabilizing a side channel by narrowing and deepening it, and adding large woody materials and planting vegetation. This work was accomplished by constructing a small coffer dam and pumping the water out of the channel. “This side channel is more associated with trout and burbot habitat,” Ireland said.

    Much of this side channel work was done on the land of and with the help of cooperative landowners. Those that qualified received funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service under a Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative. These funds helped put in fencing to keep livestock out of the working area.

    Funding for the planning and implementation of this project was provided by the Bonneville Power Administration through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Columbia Basin Fish & Wildlife Program.

    The main focus of the Master Plan was to provide a framework that allows the Kootenai Tribe to identify and implement restoration actions. Only part of phase one has been completed. Phases two and three work will be carried out through 2016.

    One of the most critical restoration actions  of the project is slated for the Meander Reach One, which extends 10 river miles downstream from Bonner’s Ferry. This section of the river comprises the majority of the area designated as critical habitat for KRWS. The river bottom here is mostly sand, and it lacks the gravel and cobbles that are necessary for the healthy aquatic life. The problem is that KRWS  have been spawning in this reach, but  have not been successful in producing young that survive through the juvenile stage. As U.S. Fish & Wildlife KRWS recovery coordinator Jason Flory said, “The eggs are deposited in the sand and silt;  they get buried, then suffocate and die.”

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) will be involved in the Meander Reach restoration working with KTOI to determine what type of fill will be used in that  stretch of the river. The idea is to place enough rocky material in the substrate so that when the sturgeon spawn their young will attach to rocky material and hopefully survive.

    Nearly all of the scheduled restoration plans will be done in-river, which means there will be a narrow window for enhancement projects after irrigation season, and before water levels come back up for the winter.

    Ireland is excited about the project and its potential impacts. “We tried to find the best ways to work with the local community and help the fish as well,” she said. “Look at the different needs of the species. There have been so many impacts over the last century that the land has changed from how it looked 100 years ago. We wouldn’t propose to take it back to the way things were  then. We have to work within the constraints of the system.”

    More information on the Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Program can be found at: “http://www.restoringthekootenai.org/habitatRestoration/” http://www.restoringthekootenai.org/habitatRestoration/