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Kootenai Tribe Helping Sturgeon Population

BONNERS FERRY, Idaho -- The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho has a long history
interwoven with white sturgeon of the Kootenai River. Sturgeon were a
primary source of food and the tribe even modeled their canoes in the form
of a sturgeon's head with the prow sloping downward to the water rather
than swept upward in the more common fashion.

Now the Kootenai Tribe is helping the fish. Sturgeon were plentiful until
the Libby Dam was created and changed the water flows in the river. Bank
stabilization, poor water quality, loss of rearing habitat and predation
all were factors which contributed to the problems. Sturgeon no longer had
conditions suitable for spawning and populations began dropping.

They are long-lived fish, living to about the same age as humans, and don't
spawn for the first time until they're about 20. Research had shown the
population to be in general decline since the mid-1960s. The population was
listed as endangered in 1994. The estimate was less than 1,500 fish by 1997
with very few fish less than 25 years old. Reproduction had virtually
stopped.

The tribe stepped in with an offer of land on which to build a small
hatchery in 1990. A cooperative venture was born. Little was known about
rearing sturgeon at that time other than work done at U.C. Davis and the
College of Southern Idaho. Efforts were small at first at the Kootenai
Hatchery and during the years between 1992 and 1999 only 2,702
hatchery-reared fish were released into the Kootenai River.

Today the hatchery is substantially larger and employs two managers with
extensive experience in other hatcheries plus four technicians, three of
which are tribal members with nearly 20 years of experience between them.
Jack Siple is the hatchery manager and he said "We're one of the leaders
now in wild sturgeon brood stock hatchery work" and added, "We're still
learning."

Wild fish are caught from the river each spring to provide eggs. These fish
are all at least six feet long. Twelve females were caught this spring and
likely six or seven will be spawned in the hatchery. All will be returned
to the river. It's possible they will be recaptured several years from now
for another spawning session. This is the largest number taken in one year
with six or seven being more normal.

An average female will provide 60,000 -- 70,000 eggs. These are divided
into three or four groups and each group is fertilized by a different male,
thus making several "family groups" from each female. Five such "family
groups" of about 10,000 fertilized eggs are sent to Canada each year as
part of an agreement since Kootenay Lake in British Columbia is part of the
same system that flows from Montana through Idaho and on to the lake.
Natural attrition will reduce each group to between 1,000 and 1,500 by the
time they're a year-and-a-half old and released into the river. That should
provide 15,000 to 20,000 fish for release in the summer of 2005 into
Idaho's Kootenai River.

Robert Aitken, Kootenai, is the senior technician and has worked at the
hatchery nearly from its inception. Ralph Bahe, Kootenai/Navajo, is a
hatchery technician with several years experience. He showed how one of the
prehistoric-looking scutes along the sturgeon's body is marked to identify
it in the future as a fish that had previously been captured. He also
showed a pit tag and explained how it's inserted under the skin near the
tail adjacent to the dorsal fin as another means of identifying that
particular fish.

The tribe's purpose was to do something to benefit the fish and bring this
population back from the verge of extinction with the hope that a fishery
could eventually be resumed on the Kootenay River. Sturgeon played a major
role in the history of the tribe and it's hoped these efforts will cause
them to gain again in importance.