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Deal struck to improve Idaho trout stocks

In 1949, Nelson Higgins caught the world record bull trout in Lake Pend Oreille. It weighed 32 pounds.
In 1949, Nelson Higgins caught the world record bull trout in Lake Pend Oreille. It weighed 32 pounds.

Effort will help Kalispels be able to harvest again

Two prized trout fisheries in the Lake Pend Oreille watershed will get a $39.5 million boost from the federal government through an agreement with the Kalispel Tribe.

The money will be spent over the next decade to improve stocks of native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout, whose numbers plummeted after Albeni Falls Dam was built in the 1950s.

The effort will help the Kalispel Tribe keep centuries-old fishing traditions alive in watersheds used by their ancestors. And for local anglers, there’s plenty in the pact to celebrate, too.

“At some point in the future, we want our people to be able to harvest these fish again, and everyone else to be able to harvest them, too,” said Deane Osterman, executive director for the Kalispel Tribe’s Natural Resources Department. “We want the improvements to benefit the entire community.”

In addition to eating salmon from the Columbia River, the Kalispel Tribe’s members also caught healthy-sized bull trout and cutthroat from Lake Pend Oreille, the Pend Oreille River and its tributaries. Both fish are indicators of pristine watersheds, with clean, cold water.

North Idaho’s older anglers also remember trophy bull trout and cutthroat being reeled out of the Pend Oreille system, said Jim Fredericks, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Lake Pend Oreille holds the world record for the largest bull trout: a 32-pounder caught in 1949.

Fish and Game officials support the goal of restoring the runs so anglers could keep a limited number of bull trout and cutthroat, Fredericks said. Currently, the fish have to be released if they’re caught. Bull trout are federally listed as “threatened,” and westslope cutthroat are a species of concern in both Idaho and Washington.

Lake Pend Oreille actually supports one of the West’s healthiest remaining bull trout runs, said Joan Jewett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman. In 2008, the lake’s bull trout population was estimated at 8,000 spawning adults. But the population is way down from historic, pre-dam levels, when the bull trout had access to more than 200 miles of spawning streams, she said.

Restoring fish passage over Albeni Falls Dam is a key part of the accord, said the Kalispel Tribe’s Osterman. Built without fish ladders, the dam prevents young bull trout from migrating upstream to Lake Pend Oreille, where some of the bull trout matured to adulthood before heading back downstream to spawning grounds.

The dam also altered river flows, creating warmer pools of water. As part of the accord, the tribe and federal agencies will work together on dam operations to provide cooler water for bull trout during the late summer and fall. At times, temperatures in the river threaten bull trout survival.

Other money will be spent on acquiring and protecting habitat; investigating the possibility of a hatchery to rear genetically pure stocks of native trout; and removing non-native predatory fish from tributary streams.

The accord was signed by the Kalispel Tribe and three federal agencies: the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.

It mirrors the 2008 Columbia Basin fish accords between the federal government and Lower Columbia tribes, which focus on research, habitat improvements and monitoring to benefit endangered salmon and steelhead runs. However, this is the first such accord with the aim of restoring resident fish stocks, said Doug Johnson, a Bonneville Power Administration spokesman.


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