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Kootenai River

The Kootenai River basin is an international watershed encompassing about 18,000 square miles or 11,520,000 acres. The river originates in British Columbia’s Kootenay National Park, north of Mt. Assiniboine, the highest point in the drainage at 11,867 ft. elevation. From there it flows 485 miles through Montana and Idaho, returning to Canada and Kootenay Lake and eventually joining the Columbia River. The basin topography is dominated by steep mountainous terrain, 90% of which is forested or above tree line. It drops 10,000 ft. in elevation as it flows through its basin. Rainfall is relatively plentiful in the drainage, making it the second largest tributary to the Columbia River system in terms of runoff volume, though it is only the third largest in terms of drainage area. Only the Snake River contributes more volume to the Columbia and does so from a much larger drainage area.

There are many native salmonids that live in the basin. Bull trout, westslope cutthroat, Kootenai Lake strain of Kokanee salmon and the redband strain of rainbow trout. Bull trout are on the decline in the U.S.A., but genetically pure populations of westslope cutthroat are found in the Canadian reaches of the basin. Since the completion of Libby Dam in 1972, there is no evidence that the white sturgeon has successfully reproduced in the wild state. Environmental organizations have notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that they will sue because of reduction of streamflows since completion of the Libby Dam, which caused the decline of the white sturgeon. On December 1, 2000, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued an Opinion that the dam was responsible for the decline, reducing annual spring flows by half. Biologists say higher flows would enhance sturgeon spawning.

In Meade, Idaho, the Kootenai tribe is trying to save the white sturgeon that has inhabited the river for millennia. On September 6, 1994, the white sturgeon was listed as an Endangered Species. The tribe initiated a study and aquaculture to rebuild a natural, age-class structure with hatchery to raise sturgeon and prevent extinction. The juveniles are surviving but don’t reach spawning maturity for 20 years. Families of fish are released at 4,500 per stocking. Raising and releasing more families and larger numbers of fish per family should ensure the genetic diversity.

In November 2004, the Kootenai tribe of Idaho and Idaho Fish & Game Department proposed to add liquid nitrogen and phosphorus to the Kootenai River at the Idaho/Montana state line from late June through September each year, starting in 2005. The river is currently nutrient poor and has been so for 25 years, causing the decline in fish populations. Nutrients that once flowed downriver from Canada are now being trapped behind Libby Dam. The Bonneville Power Administration, responsible for protecting fish and wildlife affected by federal dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries, would fund this proposal. ~

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