The ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government has idled permit writers who are under a looming deadline to complete Idaho’s steelhead fishery permit, and some stakeholders are urging Gov. Brad Little to sound the alarm.
A closure of Idaho’s steelhead season was narrowly averted last month when conservation groups, the Idaho River Community Alliance and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game reached an 11th-hour agreement to keep it open. The agreement, which headed off threatened litigation by five conservation groups in exchange for steps taken both by the department and outfitters and guides, sunsets after March 15.
Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League — which did not participate in the litigation threat — released a letter Friday he wrote to Little outlining the issue and the negative role the shutdown threatens to play should it continue.
“While the Trump administration may view the fishery biologists working to protect Idaho’s steelhead — and our steelhead fishing season — as nonessential employees, we sure don’t,” according to Hayes’ letter. “Ensuring that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is able to administer a steelhead fishing season that allows hatchery-based steelhead to be harvested while not harming our wild runs is absolutely essential to many Idaho communities and families.”
Hayes goes on to ask Little to step in and advocate for quick completion of the permit.
“The government shutdown is threatening Idaho steelhead and the Idaho families whose livelihoods depend on them. We ask that you take action and ask the Trump administration to prioritize these families and prioritize the money needed to get the (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) biologists back to work.”
Ed Schriever, deputy director of Fish and Game, who will assume the helm of the department Monday, said he is keeping an eye on the situation. When the agreement was signed in December, officials at NOAA Fisheries told the state they likely would complete the permit by mid-February.
“There is about a month of cushion between the expiration of the agreement and when we first expected the permit (to be completed),” Schriever said. “We know the longer (the shutdown) goes on, the narrower the window becomes on the cushion that existed prior to the shutdown. We can only hope resolution comes quickly and those folks get back to work on our permit.”
He said if the government isn’t reopened, he is likely to reach out to the parties of the agreement to see if an extension can be worked out.
“As time drags on, we are going to explore other alternatives, if it appears the shutdown is going to go on,” Schriever said.
The return of both hatchery and wild steelhead to the Snake River and its tributaries tanked this year, marking the second consecutive year of poor fish numbers. In October, a handful of conservation groups that included the Conservation Angler, Wild Fish Conservancy, Wild Salmon Rivers, Friends of the Clearwater and Snake River Waterkeeper threatened to sue Idaho fisheries officials under a provision of the Endangered Species Act because the state’s federal permit had expired several years earlier. The groups argued protected wild steelhead numbers are so low, that additional steps designed to protect the fish or outright closing of the season was necessary.
The permit, which allows a small number of wild steelhead — protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — to be harmed during fishing, expired in 2010. The state submitted a new permit application the same year, but officials at NOAA Fisheries only recently began to review it because of a backlog of work on other permits, such as those that allow states, tribes and the federal government to operate salmon and steelhead hatcheries.
Under the terms of the December agreement, the state agreed to close stretches of the Salmon and South Fork of the Clearwater rivers where wild fish congregate. Members of the Idaho River Community Alliance, which includes many outfitters and guides, agreed to adopt fishing practices that provide extra protection to wild steelhead. The conservation groups agreed to hold off on litigation.
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