A crowd of more than 80 people at a Riggins community meeting over the looming closure of the steelhead fishing season in Idaho heard mostly bad news Tuesday night.
The season is set to sunset temporarily after Dec. 7 in Idaho because of the threat of a lawsuit from a handful of conservation groups.
Representatives from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game told the audience it is unlikely federal fisheries officials would be able to complete a process needed to reopen steelhead fishing before March.
That means the small town that sits at the confluence of the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers is going to miss out on the business it usually gets during a popular women’s steelhead fishing tournament in February and March. It also will lose money that would otherwise be generated from other anglers fishing the two rivers.
“We are hopeful we would be able to reopen sometime in March,” said Jim Fredericks, chief of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game Fisheries Bureau. “It’s possible it could be earlier. The problem is if (federal officials) don’t dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, they leave that permit vulnerable to lawsuit. As painful as it is to say, the most important thing we can do is make sure the permit is completed by the book and make sure they do it right.”
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission suspended the season, effective Dec. 7, in response to the threat of a lawsuit from six conservation groups — Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater, the Conservation Angler, Snake River Waterkeeper, Wild Salmon Rivers and the Wild Fish Conservancy.
The groups sent Idaho a 60-day notice of intent to sue last month and asked the state to shut down the steelhead fishing season. They believe the return of wild fish, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, is so low that injuries the protected fish may experience while being caught and released could push the species closer to extinction.
They have legal leverage because Idaho’s Fisheries Evaluation and Monitoring Plan and associated incidental take permit expired in 2010. The state submitted a new plan the same year, but federal officials only recently began to review it.
The meeting, organized by community leaders, was held to inform residents of the issue and to urge them to action by contacting officials at NOAA Fisheries to demand swift processing of the needed permit. They also recommended residents contact politicians such as U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo to ask them to pressure the government to action.
In addition to Fredericks, Fish and Game Deputy Director Ed Schriever and Idaho Deputy Attorney General Kathleen Trevor attended the meeting and spent nearly two hours answering questions.
Schriever said NOAA officials sat on the permit because they faced a backlog of work and lawsuits — from some of the same groups — over various other permits in the West, including ones that allow states, American Indian tribes and others to operate hatcheries that produce salmon and steelhead for anglers to catch.
Had the commission decided to keep the season open, the groups may have sued. In that scenario, Schriever said, the state likely would have lost and it’s possible a federal judge might have ordered Idaho to adopt some of the measures the groups were seeking. In negotiations held earlier this month, the groups asked Idaho to ban bait fishing for steelhead, to ban fishing from boats and to forbid anglers from lifting wild steelhead out of the water for photographs before releasing them.
“The judge can say you can fish, but you have to do these things,” Schriever said. “That has potential to influence what our fishing looks like in the future. He could have ability to influence the permit NOAA gives us, to have additional BS on that permit and that would be a bad deal.”
Jon Kittelll, a fishing guide from Riggins, asked Schriever and Fredericks if they had been putting pressure on federal officials to process the permit over the eight years it had lapsed.
Schriever said they did but the state understood and agreed that it was more important for both the federal government and Fish and Game to complete the permits for hatchery programs.
“If you don’t get to run your hatcheries it doesn’t matter if you have a fishery permit our not, so we were in lock step with NOAA that the top priority is to make sure hatchery programs had the coverage they needed. We agreed with them it was more important that they get those done first.”
Rob Pottenger, of Riggins, asked why Idaho Gov. C.L. Butch Otter, Gov.-elect Brad Little and the state’s congressional delegation haven’t put more pressure on the federal agency given the financial loss faced by Riggins and other small towns.
“This is millions and millions of dollars,” he said. “I look around here and see millions of dollars.”
State Rep. Paul Shepherd said he would prefer that the state went to court and put up a fight. But he lamented that would likely take time.
“I want justice. I think we can get justice if we will fight,” he said. “I’m willing to fight and I want it done quickly, but I don’t know how to get it done quickly.”
Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings suggested if anglers fished for steelhead after the season closes they would be unlikely to face citations from local law enforcement nor prosecution from Idaho County.
“Who is going to enforce fishing in Idaho?” he said of anybody who issued anglers tickets. “They are going to go to court and lose.”
Matt Walker, of Riggins, asked if anglers were to fish for other species such as bass or pikeminnow, if they would be cited for “accidentally” catching a steelhead.
“What’s to stop them for fishing for other species?” he asked.
“The river is open to fishing for other species,” Schriever said.
Sam Whitten, of Riggins, said the community should attempt to meet with leaders of the conservation groups.
“We need to talk to these people. We are hurting. I would like to see our group meet with these people soon.”
State Sen. Carl Crabtree of Grangeville said people who know Idaho Rivers United members could speak with them and let them know the hardship the season closure is causing people in the state.
“The environmental community doesn’t like this kind of thing,” he said. “They look bad. It’s not good for them.”