COEUR D’ALENE — Seeking to avoid potentially costly legal fees, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to suspend the ongoing steelhead fishing season after Dec. 7, and to shutter the coming spring season as well.
Commissioners and department officials vowed to reopen the season as soon as Idaho’s permit for incidental take of wild steelhead is approved by the federal government, something that could happen by late February or March.
The permit is an outgrowth of the state’s Fisheries Evaluation and Monitoring Plan. It allows a small percentage of wild steelhead listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act to be killed during the state’s steelhead fishery. That plan and the associated permit expired in 2010. The state submitted an updated plan the same year but the federal government, citing more pressing needs, failed to act on it for eight years. The plan is now open for public comment and could be approved late this winter or early next spring.
Last month, six environmental and fishing groups sent the state a notice of their intent to sue over the lack of a valid permit, and asked the department to end the season to protect wild steelhead.
Officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game met last week with leaders of the groups who filed the suit — including Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater, the Conservation Angler, Snake River Water Keeper and the Wild Fish Conservancy — in an attempt to reach a settlement, but the talks broke down before a solution could be reached. Among other things, the groups wanted the state to forbid bait, to prohibit fishing from boats and to make it illegal to remove wild fish from the water for photographs.
Without a valid permit in hand, commissioners felt that if they continued the season and a lawsuit was filed, the state would likely lose and be responsible for paying the plaintiffs’ legal fees, a bill that could run as much as $50,000, according to Deputy Attorney General Kathleen Trevor.
“Technically, through no fault of our own, we are out of compliance,” said Commissioner Jerry Meyers of North Fork, Idaho, near Salmon. “It’s a loser in my opinion if we go to federal court, and it’s almost automatically a certainty we will end up paying many thousands and thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees. Because of that, I move we suspend the current and upcoming season.”
Commissioner Dan Blanco of Moscow seconded the motion, which passed 6-0. After the meeting, Blanco said shuttering the season was a prudent, though regrettable, move.
“I think it’s the best available solution to a complex problem,” he said. “There is not much percentage in going to court on this when we clearly do not have the required permit. The only mitigating circumstance, if you want to look for a silver lining, is that it’s a very poor run this year, effort is way down and I suspect harvest will be way down, and it’s an easier pill to swallow than if we were experiencing a booming run.”
Because steelhead fishing won’t close until Dec. 7, the annual Rogers Dodge Steelhead Derby that starts Saturday and wraps up Nov. 24 will continue as planned. In addition, anglers who are licensed in Washington and Oregon will continue to be able to fish for steelhead in those states, including in the Snake River where it forms a border with Idaho. However, fishing will close in the Clearwater and Salmon rivers.
Idaho Fish and Game officials stressed that the season is being suspended because of a technical issue — the lack of an updated permit — and not for a need to conserve protected wild steelhead.
“This (steelhead fishing) is a significantly important activity, but it is not a conservation-related issue,” Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore said. “This is a disappointing outcome of threatened legal action. We were unfortunately not able to find a negotiated settlement with the plaintiffs in this case.”
Moore said the state is already doing everything it can, and is obligated to do, to protect wild steelhead.
“Idaho has always been a leader in wild steelhead management. We have closed hundreds of miles of predominantly wild steelhead streams and never had them open for steelhead,” he said. “Many of those wild steelhead streams have no hatchery fish in them and never have had hatchery fish in them. Those policies were put in place in the mid-1970s.”
David Moskowitz, executive director of the Portland-based Conservation Angler, disputed the state’s position that closing the season would not have a conservation effect. He said the current return of wild steelhead is so low that shutting down fishing is the right thing to do and would protect wild fish by eliminating catch-and-release mortality. He also said the state rejected all of the things the groups suggested and termed them social, rather than biological, issues.
“It’s not with any pleasure or relish we are pursuing this,” Moskowitz said. “It’s meant to send a signal to everyone who is supposed to take care of these fish.”
The pending closure could be a brutal hit to some of Idaho’s small communities that rely on income from steelhead anglers.
“This is devastating news,” said Rexann Zimmerman, owner of the Riggins Tackle Shop at Riggins. “It’s going to be horrible. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
She said the small town at the confluence of the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers relies on winter and early spring steelhead fishing. In particular, she said it would upend the popular Women and Bait steelhead derby that keeps the town hopping during an otherwise slow period.
“Without having them in February and two weeks in March, that is really going to hurt the restaurants and the hotels and the bars,” she said.
Evelyn Kaide, owner of the Guide Shop and Clearwater Drifters at Orofino, said she would have to lay off her guides.
“What do we do as a little business, I don’t know,” she said. “I think fighting city hall is like beating your head against the wall.”
Fisherman Butch Suor of Stites said there is a lot of blame to go around.
“For one, for the feds not to progress on the permit, and number two, for the department not to push it, it’s just unbelievable. They’ve only had nine years and now they left the window open for the greenies to get in.”
Barker may be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.