Idaho groups fear the government shutdown could doom a permit to save steelhead season

Last month, it looked like the fight to preserve the Idaho steelhead season was successful, but the ongoing federal government shutdown has some conservation groups worried that the effort was for naught.

In a letter delivered to Gov. Brad Little on Friday, Idaho Conservation League program director Justin Hayes said he believes the shutdown could create a hitch in the agreement between anglers, environmental groups and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The deal was drawn up to rectify an expired permit through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries that allows for a certain number of wild steelhead, which are a protected species, to be harmed during the hatchery fishing season.

“Key to reaching [that] agreement was the fact that Idaho would secure the necessary permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) no later than March 15, 2019,” Hayes wrote in his letter to the governor.

But the Sustainable Fisheries Division of NMFS has been unstaffed for several weeks due to the shutdown.

“Idaho’s permit application is sitting on a desk in an empty office,” Hayes wrote. “While the Trump administration may view the fishery biologists working to protect Idaho’s steelhead — and our steelhead fishing season — as non-essential employees, we sure don’t.”

The impact on anglers

In a phone interview on Monday, Hayes told the Statesman that fishing guides in towns like Riggins, where the steelhead season is an essential part of the economy, are concerned. According to Roy Akins, owner of Rapid River Outfitters and chairman for the newly formed Idaho River Community Alliance, the town has already been hurt by publicity around the uncertain season.

“A lot of our negotiations stemmed from the fact that we were told that Fish and Game should have the permit in their hand by Feb. 15,” Akins said. “The agreement was an insurance policy to get us through the year. And it may turn out the agreement was more important than we thought.”

Hayes said the March deadline was meant to leave a window for reviews and revisions on the federal permit.

“We’ve gobbled up basically all of what they thought was their wiggle room,” he said.

If the permit is not approved by the March 15 deadline, Fish and Game could suspend the rest of the spring steelhead season.

“These aren’t federal employees,” Hayes said. “These are salt-of-the-earth rural Idahoans, and they’re being affected nonetheless.”

Call to action

Hayes said he hopes his letter to the governor can draw some attention to the situation or urge officials to pass the permit on to the few employees still working at the federal fisheries office.

“Our delegation and our governor need to go to the Trump administration and say, ‘Let’s make this a priority,’” Hayes said.

On Monday morning, Hayes said he hadn’t received a response from Little’s office. The governor’s office wasn’t immediately available to comment.

Akins had his own message for Little.

“What we need is long-term help to join Oregon, Washington, Idaho, to look at steelhead and make ... a plan,” Akins said.

In the short term, Akins is trying to turn to any agency he can for support, but he’s been frustrated by the lack of resources because of the shutdown.

“There’s a lot of people we’d like to be talking to, a lot of things we’d like to be doing, and there’s so many closed doors right now,” he said.

Akins said Riggins-area anglers and fishing guides are “at a loss right now.”

“It’s definitely been a steelhead season we can’t wait to put behind us,” he said.

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Nicole Blanchard is the Idaho Statesman’s outdoors reporter. She grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University and frequents the trails around Boise as much as she can.