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Saving sturgeon

At the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho’s Bonners Ferry hatchery, technicians are trying to keep the the Kootenai River white sturgeon from going extinct.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Hatchery technician Chris Lewandowsky holds the head of a 7-foot-7-inch female white sturgeon weighing 170 pounds at the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho’s hatchery June 4, 2010. The finger-like barbels below the sturgeon’s snout help it sense food in the depths of the Kootenai River.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Hatchery technicians hose water into the mouth of a female white sturgeon, keeping her hydrated and breathing as they prepare to harvest its eggs. The fish can grow to 8 feet in length and live 100 years.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

“She’s sacrificing for future generations,” says Chris Lewandowsky, hatchery technician, as he pushes eggs from a white sturgeon. The eggs might fetch hundreds of dollars per pound as caviar. Here, however, they will be hatched and the hatchlings returned to the Kootenai River as a stop-gap measure to stave off the species’ extinction.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Hatchery technician Justus Cree, an employee of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, holds the harvested sturgeon eggs in a Pyrex container. Sturgeon don’t spawn until they’re about 30. Females produce eggs every four to six years.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Goose feathers are used to stir fertilized sturgeon eggs during the de-adhesion process at the hatchery. The process prevents the eggs from clumping to ensure they get proper water flow.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Fertilized sturgeon eggs hatch within eight to 10 days. While hatchery technicians will return most of the hatchlings to the Kootenai River, they keep 16,000 at the facility for about 16 months to increase their chances at survival.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Chris Lewandowski, the hatchery technician, holds a 1-year-old hatchery-bred sturgeon. The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, whose traditions revere the sturgeon as spiritual messengers, is working to preserve the fish.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Chris Lewandowski shows off the cartilage plates on the back of a 1-year-old sturgeon fingerling at the hatchery. The sharp edges help protect the young fish in the wild.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Chris Lewandowski reveals the gaping mouth of a grown white sturgeon at the hatchery.


From left, Chris Lewandowski, Jose Ponce, Justus Cree and Kevin James prepare to move a female sturgeon to another tank at the hatchery.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

The technicians lift the 170-pound sturgeon out of a tank at the hatchery. The female was getting ready to spawn.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

After releasing nearly 150,000 eggs over four hours, the female sturgeon gets a lift from the hatchery in Bonners Ferry toward the Kootenai River, where she will be released.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

The sturgeon slips into the Kootenai River with the help of hatchery technicians.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Justus Cree holds a hook in his mouth as he prepares bait to fish for sturgeon on the Kootenai River. Faced with another female due to ovulate at the hatchery in the next 24 hours, the technicians needed to catch a male and capture more sperm.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

From left, Chris Lewandowski, Jose Ponce and Justus Cree wait for sturgeon to bite near Ambush Rock on the Kootenai River. Before Libby Dam was built, sturgeon would journey upstream from Kootenay Lake to gravel beds in Idaho and Montana to spawn. Now, the fish rarely travel farther than Bonner’s Ferry.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

From left, Jose Ponce, Justus Cree and Chris Lewandowski laugh while fishing for sturgeon on the Kootenai River. Everyone who works with the Kootenai sturgeon falls at least a little under their spell, says Sue Ireland, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho’s fish and wildlife director.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

After a wait, Justus Cree, left, hooks a sturgeon on the Kootenai River near Bonners Ferry.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Chris Lewandowsky helps land a 150-pound sturgeon on the Kootenai River in Bonners Ferry. A sling for lifting the fish out of the water waits at right.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

Back at the hatchery, a 1-year-old sturgeon fingerling flips on its back, releasing bubbles. “That’s a burp,” Chris Lewandowski said.


Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review

From tip to tail, this white sturgeon measures 7 feet, 7 inches. Ancient fossils resemble the sturgeon of today, with their same long snouts, shark-like tails and rows of cartilage plates.

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