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Eric Barker
Lewiston Idaho Tribune

Part of a yearslong project that is adding 11 miles of passing lanes to U.S. Highway 95 between Culdesac and Winchester in north central Idaho was temporarily halted last month following an incident that killed dozens of protected steelhead in Lapwai Creek.

According to Idaho Transportation Department spokesperson Aubrey Spence, contractor Knife River was excavating on Aug. 29 in preparation of placing a retaining wall adjacent to Lapwai Creek.

The digging caused water in one of the creek’s forks to sink and flow below ground. About 80 wild, juvenile steelhead in the area were left without adequate flows and perished.

Steelhead in the creek are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The transportation department has a permit allowing the work associated with the project to incidentally harm a small number of wild steelhead. But the steelhead that died following the incident exceeded the mortality allowed by the permit issued by NOAA Fisheries.

Spence said in an email to the Tribune that work was stopped when the creek became dewatered but later resumed with permission from federal fisheries officials. Idaho Transportation Department spokesperson Megan Jahn said the contractor is working to complete in-stream construction that was already underway when the incident happened. She said finishing the work will allow steelhead and other fish to pass upstream, something they were unable to do before the project. She also said that agency officials discussed resumption of work with both NOAA Fisheries and the Nez Perce Tribe.

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Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairperson Samuel N. Penney issued this statement: “The circumstances of this fish kill, although accidental, are significant. With already low numbers of steelhead returning to our region, this incident will have an impact. We encourage and support ITD in taking the appropriate steps to prevent something like this from happening again.”

While work continues, water is being pumped around the excavation site and fish in that portion of the creek have been moved. Temporary netting has been erected to keep them away from the work area.

Because the incidental take permit was exceeded, NOAA Fisheries and the department will need to restart the consultation process in which the federal agency looks at the project and its potential harm to protected species. Consultation often results in the federal agency — NOAA Fisheries in this case — requiring entities performing work that may harm protected species to implement measures aimed at reducing or mitigating that harm.

Jahn said no new in-stream work will begin until the consultation process is completed.

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Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

This article was published via AP Storyshare.