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Coeur d'Alene Tribe begins stream rehabilitation

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PLUMMER, Idaho - It was 2001 when the Coeur d'Alene Tribe acquired 410 acres of fish and wildlife habitat along Benewah Creek, a tributary of Coeur d'Alene Lake. Mitigation funds from Bonneville Power Administration provided the money for the purchase.

The stream was severely impacted by forestry and grazing activity for the previous 70 or 80 years. The meandering stream was changed to a straight line with high dirt banks, and erosion was taking an estimated 140 - 390 tons of soil a year due to channelization. Other problems included loss of streamside vegetation affecting both wildlife and fish, culverts that prevented fish passage, and a lowering of the water table that impacted native plants, including camas. It also reduced underground water flow into the creek, resulting in higher water temperatures.

Rehabilitation efforts began in 2004 and already the changes are remarkable. An early priority was to correct a problem of fish passage that prevented fish from moving upstream to areas where spawning habitat was available. A culvert under the road was impassable as the stream below had lowered in elevation. Several riffles were constructed, joined by pools, to raise the level of the stream so fish could get through the culvert. A large squash culvert also replaced the previous small culvert.

Another immediate need was to restore some of the forest habitat in the valley. Much had been cleared nearly a century earlier and those actions had contributed to degrading the stream habitat as well. Native trees have been planted the past several years to begin the forest restoration process. Recent plantings are very visible, enclosed in plastic sheaths to prevent damage by wildlife until the trees are a little larger.

The area does contain good populations of white-tailed deer, elk, moose and black bear. Other species are in very low numbers. Beaver is perhaps the prime example of an animal that's been affected by not having the necessary food plants available to survive in any abundance. Such plant species as alder, several willows, dogwood and cottonwood have been planted to remedy that lack and to help return the valley to its original condition.

Perhaps the most visible change has been the reconstruction of the stream itself. The plan was to restore the creek to its original, meandering location and to fill in and replant the straight channeled ditch that it had become. Work began on that project in 2005 when 2,100 feet of channel were redone. Last season's work brought the total to 4,000 feet and another 2,500 feet are scheduled for this summer. The larger objective is to complete about three miles of the main-stem of Benewah Creek over an eight- to 10-year period. The overall objective for fisheries is to improve rearing conditions in the main-stem of the creek. This will also help maintain the flood plain wetlands and allow plants native to this habitat to return. It's being done slowly but ultimately, when completed, will be the largest project of its kind in the state.

The transformation has taken just two years. The channelized portion has been obliterated, filled in and replanted. One has to really look to see where it had been. The stream now flows in its original course, perhaps for the first time in about 70 years. This also required raising the stream level through a series of riffles and pools to return it to its historic level. Pools now are five or six feet deep, helping hold fish in the summertime and providing main-stem rearing sites. The relocation has increased the length of this section of stream by 40 percent, comparable to what it was historically.

It's not inexpensive. Fisheries budgets have expended close to $1.3 million already, plus wildlife expenditures bring that total to over $2 million. Fisheries program manager Ron Peters estimated that between the two budgets, and working on just a few streams, the tribe could invest as much as $50 million protecting and enhancing fish and wildlife habitat over the next 10 years.