Permit writers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are hopeful they can meet a March 15 deadline to complete Idaho’s steelhead fishery permit, but an agency spokesman said the recent 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government cost them valuable time.
The deadline is related to a tri-party agreement that staved off potential litigation against the state’s steelhead fishery and kept the season from closing in December.
Prior to the political game of chicken between President Donald Trump and Congress that furloughed more than 800,000 federal workers, agency officials had expected the incidental take permit to be finished by the middle of this month. The document allows a small percentage of wild steelhead, protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, to be harmed during the fishing season targeting unprotected hatchery fish.
“We think we can still make the (March 15) date, but there is still a lot of work to do so it will be close,” said Michael Milstein, Portland, Ore.-based NOAA spokesman. “We’re doing everything we can to make up for the lost time.”
Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever said what was once a healthy cushion of time – which he compared to a 14-inch Sealy Posturepedic mattress – is now no thicker than a yoga mat.
“They are working overtime, but we are not going to have it by the first or second week of February,” Schriever said. “It is our hope and NOAA’s hope that the permit is finalized and in our hand by the end of the agreement.”
The state last had an approved permit in 2010 and submitted an application for renewal the same year. But a backlog of work on similar permits that allow state, tribal and federal hatcheries to release salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia River basin received higher priority.
Schriever said the federal agency allowed the state to operate its steelhead season based on the provisions of its old permit during the eight-year delay. Last fall, however, six conservation groups threatened to sue Idaho fisheries officials under a provision of the ESA and asked the state to shut the season down or adopt measures designed to give threatened steelhead additional protection. The groups, including the Conservation Angler, Wild Fish Conservancy and Friends of the Clearwater, said a halt to fishing or additional protections for wild fish were needed because of the dismal state of the steelhead run. The return of steelhead in 2018 was the lowest recorded since 1994.
The department and Idaho Fish and Game commissioners were unwilling to adopt the protective measures – such as banning the use of bait, not allowing anglers to fish from boats and requiring them to release wild steelhead without removing them from the water for photographs – arguing the measures were not biologically necessary.
But they also conceded that they were sure to lose in court if the groups followed through on the threatened litigation. To protect the state from potentially hefty legal fees and stave off the possibility of court-ordered fishing restrictions that they feared might set precedent, the commissioners voted Dec. 8 to close the season.
The season closure threatened to wreak economic havoc to outfitters and guides and business in towns such as Riggins that depend on income from steelhead anglers.
An 11th-hour agreement between the state, conservation groups and Riggins and Clearwater chapters of the Idaho River Community Alliance kept the season open. Under the terms of the agreement, the state closed two stretches of rivers where wild fish congregate, and guides associated with the Idaho River Community Alliance agreed to adopt some of the protective measures such as not removing wild fish from the water. The conservation groups agreed to hold off on filing litigation until March 15.
Toby Wyatt, owner of Reel Time Fishing, based in Clarkston, said the drama cost him business but the agreement allowed him to at least pay the bills and get through the bulk of his season. He often stops running steelhead trips in March but said if the permit isn’t completed and leads to an early closure, other areas of the state will be hurt.
“I feel sorry for the guys on the upper Salmon River and up on the South Fork of the Clearwater. I’m bummed out for those people for sure.”