COEUR D'ALENE - Idaho Fish and Game Commissioners voted today to suspend the current steelhead fishing season and the upcoming spring season in the face of possible litigation from a small group of fishing and environmental groups. 

Under their action, steelhead fishing in Idaho will be suspended at the end of legal fishing hours on Dec. 7. The steelhead season could be reopened if and when the federal government issues the state a permit to incidentally harm a small number of protected wild steelhead during the course of fishing. 

Last month the groups — including Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater, the Conservation Angler, Snake River Water Keeper and the Wild Fish Conservancy — filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore and members of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission because the state lacks an approved Fisheries Management and Evaluation Plan. 

The plan gives the state cover under the Endangered Species Act to incidentally harm a small percentage of protected wild steelhead during the course of its recreational steelhead fishery. That plan expired in 2010. The state submitted a new monitoring and evaluation plan the same year, but officials at the Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration let it sit idle while working on other pressing issues.

The federal agency released a draft of the plan last week and is now taking public comments on it while reviewing the plan and completing other necessary documentation under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. That process could be completed and a plan approved late this winter or early next spring. But the lack of an approved plan leaves the state vulnerable to court challenge, even though federal fisheries officials are on record as saying fishing for hatchery steelhead poses little threat to protected wild fish.

Commissioners said they fear the Idaho Department of Fish and Game would be on the hook for legal fees should the season continue and the groups follow through with their intent to sue.

See Thursday's Tribune for more details on the decision.

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