‘Leopards of the Kootenai’ make spectacular rebound after facing extinction in Idaho

In the early 2000s, the world’s only freshwater cod was all but gone from the waters of the Kootenai River in North Idaho and British Columbia. Once counted in the thousands, regional populations of burbot — sometimes known as ling cod — had dropped to a mere 50.

Today, that number is closer to 50,000.

The fish’s spectacular rebound stems from a collaborative restoration effort by fisheries, communities, academics and state officials, along with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Bonneville Power Administration. As a result, a decade and a half after facing extinction, “the Leopards of the Kootenai” are back on the menu.

With regional populations hovering between 40,000 and 50,000 in the Kootenai, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission announced last week that a burbot fishing season had been approved as part of its fishing rules for 2019-21. It’s the first time since 1992 that fishing for burbot has been greenlighted by state officials.

In appearance, burbots look a bit like a catfish, a bit like an eel, with a wide mouth and specked hide — the last accounting for their “Leopard” nickname. They’re predatory, swallowing fish nearly half their size and, when food is scarce, each other.

“They’re a pit bull of a fish,” a former hatchery technician told a Spokesman-Review reporter in 2014. Adults typically reach lengths of 16 to 20 inches.

The fishing ban was put in place in the early 1990s to protect declining populations, but it was environmental factors — many of them resulting from the construction of the Libby Dam in the 1970s — that put the burbot’s long-term success in jeopardy, according to an Idaho Fish and Game news release from 2004.

The dam trapped nutrients and drastically increased river flow, and warmer waters hindered the species’ spawning, which takes place in freezing winter waters.

Other iconic Kootenai River species, including white sturgeon, saw their populations drop during the same period as cascade effects from the dam spread throughout the river’s ecosystem.

The effect of the dam was shattering.

Previously, the burbot fishery at the junction of the Kootenai River and the west arm of Kootenay Lake, British Columbia, had been one of the most robust in the world, rivaling even that of the famed Moosehead Lake of Maine. A decade in, and populations were declining precipitously; 30 years on, the Kootenai burbot was all but gone.

In 2014, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho dedicated a new, $15 million hatchery devoted to the restoration of both burbot and white sturgeon.

Drawing from genetically related burbot stock from Moyie Lake in British Columbia and employing hatchery practices developed with the aid of University of Idaho researchers, the 35,000-square-foot hatchery aimed to introduce 125,000 burbots into the Kootenai each year.

Annual population monitoring was conducted by Idaho Fish and Game biologists, along with British Columbia and Montana.

Funding for the hatchery was provided in large part by the Bonneville Power Administration — which manages Libby Dam along with the Army Corps of Engineers — as part of its effort to mitigate the dams impacts.

Sometimes derided as “poor man’s lobster,” burbot meat — light, white and somewhat sweet — is nevertheless appreciated by many anglers and historically has been an important food source for tribes that fished the Kootenai River.

Speaking to The Spokesman-Review in 2014, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho Fish and Wildlife Director Sue Ireland pointed to its lasting significance.

“The sturgeon and the burbot both are so unique,” she said.

“They’re important culturally to the tribe. They’re important socially to the community. And they’re important to the river.”

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