BONNERS FERRY — Throughout all of the hardships that the Kootenai Tribe had to persevere through, they never lost sight of their dedication and belief that they were the guardians of the land and all the native plants and wildlife within it.
The Kootenai White Sturgeon, an ancient fish reaching 20 feet in length and living to 100 years or older, suffered greatly due to the changes brought on as the area grew and was developed, forever altering the natural lay of the land and waterways.
The major decline in population began in the 1960s and was greatly affected with the installation of the Libby Dam, which altered the natural rise and fall of the river. This, in turn, disturbed the spawning grounds and habits of the sturgeon. As time passed, the remaining population was primarily made up of adults, showcasing the devastation of the sturgeons ability to reproduce.
The Kootenai Tribe initiated a sturgeon conservation aquaculture program in 1989. This program works in conjunction with programs to restore the Kootenai River ecosystem. In 1992, the tribe released its first hatchery-raised sturgeon back into the wild, a major milestone in the difficult feat of attempting to bring back a potentially doomed species.
From the inception of the program, the dedication of the Kootenai Tribe has never wavered.
“I’m just so proud of the program,” said Kootenai Tribe of Idaho Chairman Gary Aitken, Jr. “To watch its growth, from a horse pasture to multi-million dollar hatcheries. From just a couple fish in the water to close to three quarters of a million fish total, between sturgeon and burbot, back into the river system.”
On May 4, beginning at 9 a.m., the Kootenai Tribe again released their hatchery raised, juvenile sturgeon back into the Kootenai River, and the public was once again invited to take part in the adventure.
“It has been an amazing journey and we are proud to be able to share that with everybody,” said Aitken. “To let them get a glimpse at what we do, and let them get a glimpse of the power of these creatures as they get put back into nature.”
In the spring sunshine, children and adult alike, showed up to have a hand in the release. Under watchful eyes of parents, as well as the crew responsible for the fish, gentle young hands scooped the juvenile sturgeon from the buckets and placed them into the shallow waters of the boat launch. Some lucky fish even were honored with names.
“Goodbye, Emily,” said one young child, watching the sturgeon she released swim away as it embarked on its new adventure.
“What I enjoy about sharing this with the community, is that it shows the efforts that we are doing and it lets people to get in touch with the actual fish. To see that and to have the spirit of the fish touch your heart. Being able to see it in person, makes a big difference compared to just hearing about it, or reading about it. It adds a whole other level to the experience,” explained Aitken as he watched the young children releasing the fish, a smile on his face.
Alan Monk, an English and communications teacher from Northwest Academy, brought 12 students to participate. He said that the students always enjoy an opportunity to do something away from the campus.
“This is a really good opportunity for that,” said Monk. “Plus, to get to see what happens in the community around Bonners Ferry, and what the tribe does for the community, and how they help the river. This is awesome. It’s really cool what they are doing.”
In a booth perched above the river, the spectators and participants were treated to cookies, beverages, and information. Anyone with a question could easily find someone willing to answer it for them, happy to provide education about their program and about the sturgeon in general. There were bags available for children with an interactive educational packet, and even crayons to complete the sturgeon related games, and a sturgeon themed bookmark.
Twelve year old Asher Jenkins had the opportunity to release a juvenile sturgeon, and learned how large the sturgeon can grow to. “They feel weird,” he remarked with a laugh.
The Aquaculture Program Manager, Biologist Shawn Young, oversaw the release while standing in the water. He was able to make sure that each and every fish was handled with care, and that they were directed out into the river. He also provided a wealth of information to parents and children alike.
“I think everybody is super happy,” said Young. “We had a big turnout right at the beginning, so everybody was excited a little bit early, which is good. Lots of kids- that is really good, but then you still have some of the older folks, who have lived their whole lives here, and have seen how it changed, and then hopefully how we are trying to restore it.”
He explained that the juveniles come from the roughly 1,000 wild adults left in the river system. Since the breeding age is approximately 30 years, they utilize the wild bred adults to harvest and fertilize the eggs that they use in their hatchery program. Approximately 12 gravid female are taken into captivity each year. When they are ready to spawn, the eggs are massaged out, then fertilized by sperm taken from the wild adult males.
The program is approaching a new milestone, as the sturgeon from the very first releases are nearing breeding age.
“We actually caught a 26 year old male that we think is going to spawn this year with wild fish from early days of the hatchery program,” explained Young. “That’s exciting.”
For Aitken, and the others involved in this program over the years, there is a sense of ownership in watching these fish grow from eggs into sub-adults.
“There was a guy who worked with our program for a long time, and he definitely looked at these fish as his progeny,” said Aitken.
The Kootenai Tribe works with a number of agencies. They monitor all stages of the wild sturgeon closely, from fertilized eggs, through hatchlings, juveniles, sub-adults, and adults. Every program they have in place is focused on bringing the ecosystem back into balance.
“Almost every single thing that we have been doing to make it better — all the projects we are doing- have been successful,” said Aitken. “It’s really amazing. Everything from the nutrient additions, from the bottom of the food chain, up- nutrient addition, flood plain addition, substrate replacement, pool ladders to allow them to get to better substrate — everything has been a success.”
“It is amazing to see it all take place,” he said. ”I have been a part of this, since my dad was the first manager, since I was 10. Here it is, like 30 years later, and to see where we have come with this- it’s tremendous. To be able to share that — it is a special thing. I’m glad to be able to share that with the community.”
Approximately 1,000 juvenile Kootenai White Sturgeon embarked on a grand adventure on Friday, touching the hearts of the community that turned out to help see them off. For the Kootenai Tribe, the young sturgeon are a symbol of hope for the future — a future that they have never lost sight of- as they continue to work hard at their role as the guardians of the land.