Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places of western North America
and the Pacific through science, policy, education, and environmental law.

For Immediate Release: April 4, 2001
More Sturgeon Information

For More Information: Please Contact:
Bruce Eilerts, Center for Biological Diversity 520-623-5252 x301
Jeff Juel, The Ecology Center 406-728-5733
Mike Wood, Alliance for the Wild Rockies 406-542-0050


In comments submitted to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Ecology Center, and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies call for the decommissioning of the Libby Dam to save the endangered Kootenai River White Sturgeon from extinction. They also asked the agency to increase its proposed sturgeon "critical habitat" areas from 11.2 miles on state land in Idaho to included the entire Kootenai River watershed within the U.S.

"The government is fiddling while the Kootenai River sturgeon goes extinct," said Bruce Eilerts, Associate Director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "It is more concerned with avoiding controversy than saving the sturgeon. Everyone knows that Libby Dam is the culprit. It's time to take the problem head on." Mike Wood, Staff Attorney at the Alliance for the Wild Rockies states "There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that dam decommissioning is the most effective and, in the long-run, least costly means of recovering the endangered sturgeon and several other species of rare native fish. The dam should therefore be decommissioned."

The Kootenai River white sturgeon has survived for millions of years and in the past 10,000 years has evolved into a unique, landlocked species. Since the completion of Libby Dam in 1975, however, its numbers have plummeted. The sturgeon needs natural flooding patterns as a cue to begin spawning. The floods also maintain a clean cobble bottom on which the sturgeon can lay and attend its eggs.

By disrupting the river's natural flood cycle and covering over cobbles with sand, Libby Dam and the extensive system of dikes below it have essentially prevented the Kootenai River sturgeon from successfully reproducing since 1975.

Virtually all sturgeon in the river today are over 25 years old. In a few years they will be too old to reproduce and will go extinct. "If dam management does not change soon and change dramatically, these fish will become the living dead," said Eilerts. "They'll remain alive for another 25 years or so, but being unable to reproduce, they will be functionally extinct." Female sturgeons live to between 35 and 70 years. The age at which they stop reproducing is not known, but reproduction appears to end when the fish near 35 years old.
In response to a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service designated 11.2 miles of critical habitat on state owned land in Idaho, comprising only 7% of sturgeon's range. The Endangered Species Act requires that critical habitat areas encompass ALL lands necessary for the "survival and recovery" of endangered species. "To say the sturgeon can completely recover with protection of only 7% of its range is ludicrous," said Jeff Juel of the Ecology Center.

In their comments, the environmental groups point out that spawning success in the proposed critical habitat area has been hampered by regular siltation of sand. Rather than anchor safely to a rocky, river bottom, eggs in the proposed critical habitat zone get covered in sand and drift away.

Background Information

The Kootenai River white sturgeon is restricted to approximately 168 river miles in the Kootenai River. This reach extends from Kootenai Falls, Montana, located 31 river miles below Libby Dam, downstream through Kootenay Lake to Cora Linn Dam at the outflow from Kootenay Lake, British Columbia, Canada. Historically (pre-Libby Dam), spawning habitat in the main stem of the river approximate 60 river miles from Shorty's Island in Idaho, upstream to Kootenai Falls in Montana. The extent of spawning habit in tributaries to the Kootenai River is unknown, but likely included hundred so miles as other white sturgeon populations are known to spawn in such habitats.

The Kootenai River White Sturgeon began declining in the 1960ís due to mining waste pollution and the diking off of backwater habitats on the river. After completion of the Libby Dam in 1975, sturgeon numbers plummeted. The last significant year of reproduction was 1974.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed the Kootenai River White Sturgeon as a candidate for Endangered Species Act listing in 1991. In 1992 environmental groups (Idaho Conservation League, Northern Idaho Audubon and Boundary Backpackers) formally petitioned the agency to list it. It was listed as endangered on September 6, 1994.

The listing decision delayed the designation of critical habitat until September 6, 1995. The designation never happened, however, prompting a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity on June 30, 1999. On August 30, 2000, a federal judge ordered the Fish & Wildlife Service to designated critical habitat. A proposed designation of 11.2 miles on state land in Idaho was published December 21, 2001. The proposal includes less than 7% of the species 168 river-mile range. The final designation is due April 21, 2001.

In 1995, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared that Army Corps of Engineers management of Libby Dam is jeopardizing the existence of the Kootenai River sturgeon. It ordered the agency to conduct studies and alter dam water releases to protect the sturgeon. Five years later, the mitigation requirements were either not completed, or were too weak to help the sturgeon. In December 2000 the Fish and Wildlife Service again declared that Army Corps management of Libby Dam is jeopardizing the sturgeon. It again ordered the agency to conduct studies and change dam management. But as before, the mitigations are too weak.


Go back