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News >  Idaho

Tribe sues NOAA over late steelhead opinion

Associated Press

BOISE – The Nez Perce Tribe has filed a lawsuit against a federal fisheries agency, claiming the government failed to meet a deadline for issuing a biological opinion on

steelhead.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court this week, claims the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration missed the deadline to issue its opinion on the effect a Lewiston Orchards Irrigation District project may have on steelhead in the Snake River.

The tribe claims the irrigation project is harming its treaty rights to fish for steelhead and other fish in Sweetwater, Webb and Lapwai Creeks.

Because steelhead are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, NOAA is required to issue a biological opinion on federal action within 90 days of formal consultation, the lawsuit claims.

Brian Gorman, spokesman for NOAA, said he had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

The Lewiston Orchards Project, headed by the Bureau of Reclamation, allows the Lewiston Orchards Irrigation District to store and withdraw water from Soldier’s Meadow Dam and Reservoir, the Lake Waha pump facility, and the Sweetwater and Webb Creek Diversion Dams.

The project has a dramatic effect on the tribe’s fishery, the lawsuit claims.

“It is located within and dramatically alters sensitive watersheds on the Nez Perce Reservation — drainages that are not only culturally important to members of the Nez Perce Tribe, but also provide critical and important habitats for threatened Snake River Basin steelhead,” the lawsuit alleges.

In 2001, the Bureau of Reclamation requested a biological opinion on the project from NOAA, the tribe claims.

Though NOAA conducted a field review of the project, it did not formally respond until the following year — and then it did not issue a biological opinion, instead recommending that the bureau consider making habitat improvements in the region, the tribe claims.

Later, NOAA’s consultation on the project was postponed because the bureau and NOAA thought a separate lawsuit involving the tribe’s water rights claim could affect the project.

The Nez Perce Tribe claims NOAA missed the 2001 biological opinion deadline, and it wants the court to force the agency to issue one.

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