IDFG Director Blasts Groups’ Steelhead Lawsuit Threat, Agency Details What Closure Means

Idaho steelhead managers are providing more details on today’s decision by the Fish and Game Commission to suspend fishing for the species as of midnight, Dec. 9.

DARKNESS IS FALLING ON STEELHEADING IN IDAHO — THESE TWO ANGLERS WERE FISHING THE CLEARWATER AT LEWISTON — DUE TO THREAT OF A LAWSUIT. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

The citizen panel made the move this morning under threat of a federal lawsuit from six organizations, three from out of state, who told IDFG in October they would sue over the agency’s lack of a federal authorization to hold fisheries over ESA-listed stocks unless the agency closed the season.

Officials say that an attempt to settle the dispute was unsuccessful after the groups asked for bait and boat bans, barbless hook restrictions, a prohibition on removing wild steelhead completely out of the water and closing steelhead fishing after Jan. 1.

IDFG claimed that deal would have made for “a disproportionate loss of angling opportunity for a particular user group, while preserving fishing opportunity for another.”

In a nearly 700-word letter to Idaho steelheaders, outgoing Director Virgil Moore explained that the commission didn’t want to go to U.S. District Court, lose because NMFS “dropped the ball on permit renewal” and waste sportsmen’s dollars to “pay bills for advocacy-group lawyers instead of conservation”

“Having been involved in steelhead management as a professional biologist, and being a steelhead fisherman for over 40 years, I’m well aware how important steelhead fishing is to Idaho anglers and local economies,” he wrote. “The loss of that opportunity, even temporarily, due to a lawsuit and unprocessed permit is truly regrettable.”

RETIRING IDFG DIRECTOR VIRGIL MOORE DURING A 2015 UPLAND BIRD HUNTING TRIP. (IDFG)

The permit in question ran out in 2010 but IDFG has been able to hold seasons in subsequent falls and winters “in coordination with federal managers,” according to an FAQ staffers put together.

For fans of Idaho steelheading, this means two things:

Per IDFG, fishing for steelhead will be closed in the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater, and it will be “illegal” to target them while seasons remain open on those rivers for whitefish, trout, sturgeon, etc.

As for the shared Snake, IDFG says “If Oregon and Washington continue their steelhead fisheries, anglers with a valid fishing license issued by Oregon or Washington may fish for steelhead consistent with the rules of those states.”

A WDFW official confirmed that.

“Short answer is we will keep fishing. Idaho anglers will be required to have a Washington or Oregon license if they are fishing for steelhead” on the shared Snake, said Chris Donley, the regional fisheries manager out of Spokane.

The six groups are using a page out of the same playbook some used in Washington in 2014, identifying an expired federal permit that provides cover for state fisheries over ESA-listed runs, then threatening a lawsuit.

In this case, they claim wild steelhead have been harmed during hatchery steelhead and Chinook fisheries.

Without the NMFS permit, the state is vulnerable to the suit from The Wild Fish Conservancy and Wild Salmon Rivers of Washington, The Conservation Angler of Portland, and Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater and Snake River Waterkeeper, all based in Idaho.

But in its FAQs, IDFG states, “Angling has minimal impacts to wild steelhead and the majority (~85%) of the 5,000 miles of wild steelhead spawning and rearing habitat is closed to fishing.”

The agency says that most impacts on the fish occur downriver and that catch-and-release of wild fish has a 3 percent mortality rate.

Even so, a C&R fishery on even clipped steelhead can’t be kept open because it would accrue impacts on wild fish without a permit to do so.

As for when that permit will arrive, IDFG says it will take “a few months” for the feds to take public comment and finalize biops and other documentation, but it “may be completed in time to reopen the spring steelhead fishery,” which runs into April.

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