The Kootenai River's biggest problem might well be the lack of a decent hook-up bar. The waterway's wild white sturgeon population is declining by an estimated 9 percent a year, and biologists say if the fish don't get frisky soon, they'll be extinct by 2020.
"We're either going to lose the whole population of wild fish or the reproducing population within the next five to 10 years," says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).
Last Thursday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a weeklong spill test at Libby Dam, increasing the outflow of water in the hopes of coaxing white sturgeon into historic spawning grounds above Bonner's Ferry, Idaho. It's the latest action taken as part of a 2008 court settlement between the Army Corps and the CBD.
Greenwald says the sturgeon haven't naturally reproduced since the Army Corps completed the dam in 1974, and instead spawn near Bonner's Ferry where their eggs are buried by silt and don't survive. Biologists believe the dam altered specific annual river conditions—water temperature, velocity, etc.—that triggered a migration to more protected gravel beds upriver. Fewer than 500 reproducing white sturgeon remain in the population.
"They evolved under certain natural conditions that were always there for thousands of years," Greenwald says. "So essentially, with the changes in the river, what they were queuing into doesn't put them in the right place anymore."
The CBD has sued the Army Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service numerous times since 1995 for failure to appropriately respond. The Kootenai Tribe in Idaho has undertaken measures to correct the problem, namely river restoration projects. But Greenwald worries those efforts won't make headway before the fish are gone. A lot is riding on the spill test, he says.
"This is part of that larger pattern of extinction, which ultimately causes a lot of problems," Greenwald says. "It's not just the loss of the Kootenai white sturgeon...the whole food chain in the Kootenai River is declining with the degraded conditions that we've created."