Environment

Idaho Rivers United reverses course on lawsuit, asks state to reopen steelhead season

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Decades of dam-building, development and human settlement have transformed the Pacific Northwest and complicated the life cycles of Idaho's salmon and steelhead.

Idaho Rivers United announced Friday it has pulled out of a coalition of conservation organizations that threatened to sue the state of Idaho over its steelhead season, and IRU is asking the Idaho Fish and Game Commission to rescind the pending closure to steelhead fishing in the state.

The commission voted to close the season starting Dec. 8 after it was unable to reach a negotiated settlement with the groups that also include the Conservation Angler, Wild Fish Conservancy, Friends of the Clearwater, Snake River Waterkeeper, Wild Salmon Rivers and the Wild Fish Conservancy.

Kevin Lewis, director of the Boise-based IRU, said the threatened lawsuit accomplished the group’s goals by pushing the federal government to begin work on a stalled permit that would allow Idaho to hold a steelhead season without being in violation of the Endangered Species Act. He also said he was surprised when the season was closed and is critical of the move.

“Their decision hurt riverside towns, and many people we care about — people who are on a larger team to restore salmon and steelhead in Idaho. We regret that. We have many friends in those communities — anglers, fishing guides, citizens and business owners, who have worked with us for many years on salmon and steelhead recovery. It is unfair to punish rural communities that depend on fishery-based economies. Let’s fix this, quickly.”

Lewis said he didn’t know whether other members of the coalition also would drop their intent to sue.

“Everybody needs to do what is right for their organization,” he said.

It is unclear if IRU’s exit will have any impact on the pending closure. Ed Schriever, deputy director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said the department appreciates that IRU reversed course, but that doesn’t mean the threat of litigation has gone away.

“There remains other parties to that notice of intent to sue that have not made the same overtures that IRU has. Fundamentally, we are in a fairly similar position but we will be communicating to the commission that IRU has pulled out,” he said. “We will be re-evaluating the litigation risk based on what one party has done. If the other parties to the litigation would follow IRU’s lead, we could respond fairly quickly.”

Outfitter Roy Akins — a member of the Riggins City Council and chairman of the newly formed Idaho River Community Alliance — also said the other groups should back away from the threat to sue.

“We would love to see the rest of them step down as well,” he said. “We are hoping this is the first step in all of these groups taking the same approach, even though I think at this point it’s probably wishful thinking,” he said.

Idaho’s incidental take permit, which is an outgrowth of its steelhead fisheries management and evaluation plan, expired in 2010. The permit allows a small percentage of wild steelhead — protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — to be harmed as a result of being caught and released. The state applied for a new permit the same year but it has languished at the offices of NOAA Fisheries in Portland. A spokesman for the federal agency said a review of the permit was delayed because of a backlog of work on incidental take permits, and higher priority was given to permits that cover the release of hatchery salmon and steelhead.

Idaho Fish and Game commissioners opted to close the season when they were advised they would most certainly lose a lawsuit and be required to pay litigants’ attorney fees or possibly be forced to adopt measures designed to protect wild fish that the state’s fisheries managers believe are unwarranted.

The pending closure sent ripples through Idaho’s fishing community and also caused waves with conservation groups that were not part of the threatened litigation. Steelhead fishing outfitters and guides and other businesses that depend on income from anglers face a lean winter if the season isn’t restored.

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