By LAURA ROADY
BONNERS FERRY — Late this summer, dump trucks of gravel and woody debris were going non-stop out the Cow Creek Road.
The dump trucks weren’t for a road construction or building projects. They were part of the Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Project.
In the third year of implementation, this year’s project focused on the Middle Meander.
The Middle Meander project is located on the river between Fodge’s mill and the junction of Cow Creek Road and Crossport Road, where the river is closest to the railroad tracks.
On Nov. 1, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho hosted a tour of the Middle Meander project after an overview of the program at the Kootenai River Inn.
Before the project began, the river bank was nearly vertical and eroding into the river. Now the river bank is a gradual slope with woody debris along the shore and on the bank to prevent erosion while vegetation grows.
In the coming years, the 3,000 seedlings planted this fall will grow to create riparian habitat along the south bank and on the gravel bar across the river.
Workers planted willow, dogwood, alder, aspen, cottonwood and other native species such as chokecherry and hawthorn.
Prior to this project, the gravel bar across the river was small. With the addition of gravel, the flood plain was extended out into the river to create an area suitable for cottonwood galleries.
There aren’t many young cottonwoods along the river and they are an important part of the food web, said Tom Parker, river restoration project design team ecologist.
The food web includes beavers which are a concern for project engineers. A fine mesh at the bottom of the fence around the project will hopefully keep the beavers at bay until the trees are large enough to put cages around, said Parker.
A tall fence along the shore and at the top of the bank is suppose to keep larger browsers, such as deer, elk and moose, from eating the tender seedlings.
After the trees and shrubs are established, the shoreline fencing will be taken down. Since the upper fencing abuts a field, the fencing is permanent to keep livestock off the banks.
Local citizens were concerned about the fence impacting wildlife crossing on the river. There will be an interruption but wildlife can cross upstream and downstream of the project area, said Parker.
When the project is established, the banks will be more suitable for wildlife crossings then when the banks were near vertical before the project began, said design engineer Matt Daniels.
The animals most impacted by the restoration project aren’t the ones we can see, but the ones underwater.
One of the goals of the project is to restore aquatic habitat for native fish, including Kootenai River white sturgeon, burbot (ling cod), bull trout and west slope cutthroat.
Between dikes and the Libby Dam, the river’s flow regime, temperature and habitat have changed.
“The Tribe took a holistic approach to the loss of fisheries,” said Sue Ireland, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho fish and wildlife department director. “We targeted treatments to restore habitats.”
With the Middle Meander project, that included creating a mega pool offshore of the new flood plain.
Instead of one deep channel dredged up the entire river, the Tribe decided that a pool ladder concept would better aid the sturgeon in migrating upstream to spawn, said Ireland.
Currently, the sturgeon are spawning downstream of Bonners Ferry on subpar substrate (type of river bottom), such as sand, and the young are not surviving. Instead the sturgeon need to migrate upstream to areas with a rocky bottom.
The gravel excavated to create the 25 to 30 feet deep mega pool was used to extend the flood plain and form the fin structures along the bank. The fin structures create eddies that provide habitat for different fish species explained Ireland.
The projects improve habitat complexity through a range of conditions in the river, including depth, velocity and substrate.
All of the restoration work has been on private land and the Tribe is extremely grateful that landowners have worked with them on the restoration projects said Ireland.
“We’re really proud of it,” said Gary Aitken Jr., Kootenai Tribe of Idaho Tribal chairman. “We try to do everything we can to make it better.”
Bonneville Power Administration is funding a large portion of the project through the Northwest Power Act.
Within BPA’s rates are increases for mitigation funding. The Columbia Basin area receives a finite amount of mitigation funding and the Tribe’s projects bring funding to this area said Ireland.
The local economy benefited from the project with over 30 local businesses providing services and materials, said Ireland.
The Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Program is one portion of the effort to revive the sturgeon and burbot populations in the Kootenai River by restoring aquatic habitat.
The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho’s Native Fish Conservation Aquaculture program aims to restore sturgeon and burbot populations to harvestable levels through aquaculture at their hatcheries.
A second hatchery is under construction at Twin Rivers to expand the sturgeon aquaculture program and to advance the burbot aquaculture program.
• Kootenai River white sturgeon were separated from other sturgeon in the Columbia River during the last Glacial Ice Age and they adapted to the colder waters of the Kootenai sub-basin.
• Lower Columbia Basin sturgeon are larger and spawn in 15 to 16 degree Celsius water whereas Kootenai River white sturgeon spawn in 8 to 9 degree Celsius water.
• The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho’s Native Fish Conservation Aquaculture program released the first sturgeon in 1992. Eighty percent of the earliest releases have been recaptured.
• Kootenai River white sturgeon mature to spawn at 30 years old, meaning the first releases are still juveniles.
• The Kootenai River white sturgeon was listed as an Endangered Species in 1994.