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Conservation groups sue federal agencies for approving Idaho Club development on Lake Pend Oreille

Aug. 31, 2022 Updated Wed., Aug. 31, 2022 at 8:06 p.m.

A mountain goat surveys Lake Pend Oreille from the top of Scotchman Peak on June 10, 2019, near Clark Fork, Idaho.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
A mountain goat surveys Lake Pend Oreille from the top of Scotchman Peak on June 10, 2019, near Clark Fork, Idaho. (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

Two conservation groups seeking to stop a housing and marina project at the mouth of a spawning stream for endangered bull trout filed a federal lawsuit this week against government agencies that have signed off on the development.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when they approved the project by the Idaho Club where Trestle Creek flows into Lake Pend Oreille.

“It’s the responsibility of these federal agencies to protect endangered species and their habitat,” said Whitney Palmer, litigation support specialist for The Center for Biological Diversity in Idaho. “And they’re failing in their duties.”

Also involved in filing the lawsuit is the Idaho Conservation League.

The Idaho Club, a golf resort near Sandpoint, plans to build luxury homes and a marina at the mouth of Trestle Creek, about four miles south of the golf course along Highway 200. The development would involve replacing an abandoned marina, building a concrete boat ramp, 124 boat slips and a new private sandy beach along the lakeshore. It would also require rerouting the north branch of the creek, excavating an island, filling a backwater channel and removing a beaver dam.

The club and the agencies named in the suit declined to comment for this story.

The Fish and Wildlife Service designated Trestle Creek and Lake Pend Oreille as critical habitat for bull trout in 2010.

“Trestle Creek is the single most important tributary for bull trout spawning in the Pend Oreille basin,” said Brad Smith, Idaho Conservation League’s director for North Idaho. “If it were in another location, we probably wouldn’t have this level of interest. But just given the significance of Trestle Creek to bull trout spawning, it’s really important that we do our best to preserve that resource if we’re going to recover bull trout in the basin.”

Trestle Creek has among the highest number of documented nests, or redds, in all of Lake Pend Oreille’s tributaries, according to FWS. Surveys, however, show a decline in redds counted in the creek in recent years. Juvenile bull trout rear for up to five years in the creek before they migrate to the lake.

The Idaho Club development was first approved by the Corps and the FWS in 2009, when they determined that the project was not likely to adversely affect bull trout or critical habitat. The assessment was renewed twice in 2012 and 2018, with the final extension ending in 2020.

In May 2021, the Idaho Conservation League and Center for Biological Diversity sent the federal agencies a letter of intent to sue for relying on the outdated evaluation. In response, the Service recommended the Corps make a new assessment due to environmental changes that may have occurred since the original assessment.

The FWS issued its biological opinion Aug. 12 based on the Corps’ updated assessment. It found that the development will have negative long-term effects to the fish and critical habitat in Trestle Creek, but nevertheless concluded that the project will not jeopardize the recovery of the species or adversely modify the designated critical habitat overall.

The plaintiffs dispute this and argue that the development will in fact threaten the larger trout population. “We’re happy they decided to reinitiate consultation,” Palmer said, “but we do not believe that it is adequate so that is why we are filing this suit.”

To arrive at their “no jeopardy” conclusion, the suit claims the FWS improperly relied on the original 2007 design plan to offset the negative impacts of the marina project, but the project will no longer use this design plan. The final design plan and mitigation measures remain uncertain.

The suit also claims the FWS failed to analyze the effects of the private residences and other infrastructure associated with the project besides the marina.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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