Renewing a River, Saving a Prehistoric Fish

There are some animals that just capture your imagination. The Kootenai River white sturgeon is one such creature. It appears like a relic from prehistory, growing as long as 20 feet and weighing  over 1,500 pounds, with a long snout and spiky carapace. Michael Jamison of the Missoulian notes in his story on the sturgeon that  it's "...a fish some joke may be more closely related to triceratops than trout."

No wonder we're fascinated with the fish: They're like visitors from another time, a vision of something monstrous and eternal. Yet they're gentle giants that mature slowly and can live for over 100 years.

And the sturgeon found in the Kootenai are extra-special as Jamison writes: "...12,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene, retreating glaciers left behind another barrier--Bonnington Falls, high on the border of Idaho and British Columbia. The upstream population found itself landlocked, trapped between the two waterfalls, and slowly diverged into a unique species known as Kootenai River white sturgeon."

Revered by the Kootenai Tribe as mystical harbingers, the tribe has been working to prevent the species from becoming extinct. Their habitat project is hoping to improve the water velocity and temperature of the river, as well as enhance the river habitat.

The tribe, which raises sturgeon at a hatchery near Bonner's Ferry, estimates that fewer than 1,000 wild adult sturgeon remain in the river.

Sue Ireland, fish and wildlife director for the tribe, said juvenile fish raised in the hatchery are surviving when released into the river and are spawning. But, says Ireland, the eggs don't mature. "The eggs may be suffocating in the sandy, embedded substrate, and the hard substrates that they need aren't present in this reach."

The project has had to balance its goals with a number of other interests, from the federal government to the state of Montana and private landowners. Still, while the odds are long, the tribe's goal is clear. "We hope to set the stage so we address the needs of the existing population while making sure that everything is in place so that as the young fish mature, they will spawn successfully," says Ireland.