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Frequently Asked Questions About The Kootenai River White Sturgeon Final Critical Habitat Rule
Q. What is the Kootenai River white sturgeon?
A. White sturgeon of the genus Acipenser are believed to have evolved nearly 400 million years ago. The biggest freshwater fish in North America, the largest one on authenticated record weighed more than 1,300 pounds and was taken from the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. The Kootenai River population of white sturgeon is one of several land-locked populations found in the Pacific Northwest. Individuals from the land-locked populations are generally much smaller. From the Kootenai River population, there are no records from either the United States or Canada of sturgeon over 350 pounds. All sturgeon are distinguished by having a skeleton comprised of cartilage, a tube-like mouth and sensory barbells on the underside of the snout. The white sturgeon is distinguished from other species in its genus by the specific arrangement and number of scutes (bony plates) along its body. The fish have 11 to 14 bony plates on its back, 36 to 48 along its sides, and 9 to 12 on its belly.
Q. Where is the Kootenai River white sturgeon found?
A. Kootenai River white sturgeon occur in Idaho, Montana and British Columbia, Canada, and are restricted to approximately 167.7 river miles of the Kootenai River from Kootenai Falls, Montana, below Libby Dam, Montana, downstream through Kootenay Lake to Corra Linn Dam at the outflow from Kootenay Lake in British Columbia. Approximately 45 percent of the species’ range is located within British Columbia.
Q. What are the threats to the Kootenai River white sturgeon?
A. The Kootenai River white sturgeon population is threatened by dam operations, poor water quality, and loss of suitable habitat. Modifications of the Kootenai River’s natural hydrology have altered white sturgeon spawning site selection and egg incubation and rearing habitats in a way that has reduced their overall biological productivity. These factors have contributed to reduced numbers of surviving eggs and young sturgeon for the past 31 years. The adult population has been decreasing at the rate of 9 percent per year. The Kootenai River white sturgeon is listed as “Critically Imperiled” by the state of Montana and “Endangered” by the state of Idaho.
Q. How are these threats affecting the species?
A. Recent findings indicate that the population now consists of an aging cohort of large, older fish. Population estimates have declined from approximately 7,000 white sturgeon in the late 1970s to 760 fish in 2000. At the estimated mortality rate of 9 percent per year, fewer than 500 wild adults remained in 2005 and there may be fewer than 50 wild adults remaining by 2030. Sexual maturity of females is now believed to occur after age 30. Thereafter, females spawn at 4- to 6-year intervals. Annually, numbers of female spawners have declined from 270 per year in 1980 to about 77 in 2002. Based on current trends, fewer than 30 females are expected to spawn annually after year 2015.
Q. What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking?
A. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is issuing a final rule revising the 2001 critical habitat designation for the Kootenai River white sturgeon and amending the 2006 interim final critical habitat designation. The Service is now designating 18.3 river miles of critical habitat for the Kootenai sturgeon. The critical habitat area constitutes the Service’s best assessment of an area determined to be occupied at the time of listing, and that contains physical and biological features essential to the conservation of the sturgeon that may require special management or protections.
Q. Why is critical habitat being revised for the Kootenai River population of the white sturgeon?
A. The Service revised the earlier (2001) critical habitat designation in response to a U.S. District Court in Montana ruling (May 25, 2005) in favor of a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (February 21, 2003). The ruling required that the Service announce a new critical habitat designation for Kootenai River white sturgeon by February 1, 2006. In response to the District Court ruling and to meet the Court’s deadline, we published an interim final rule designating critical habitat for the Kootenai River population of the white sturgeon on February 8, 2006 (71 FR 6383), and completed a Draft Economic Analysis of Critical Habitat Designation for the Kootenai River White Sturgeon. Although the interim final rule designating critical habitat for the Kootenai River white sturgeon constituted a rule with regulatory effect, it also opened a comment period to gather public input on those portions of the rule where there was uncertainty.
In developing this final critical habitat rule for the Kootenai sturgeon, we reviewed peer review and public comments received on the interim rule (71 FR 6383) and draft economic analysis published on February 8, 2006 (71 FR 6383), as well as a second round of peer review comments received specifically on the primary constituent elements.
Based on comments received, including peer review comments, and new scientific information provided, this final rule modifies the interim final rule:
1. To more accurately reflect the best available science, the minimum depth necessary for spawning site selection by white sturgeon in the Kootenai River has been increased from 16 ft to 23 ft.;
2. This final rule corrects the river mile totals stated in the interim rule to clarify that 7.1 river miles are being added to our 2001 designation of 11.2 river miles, for a total of 18.3 river miles. The area designated as critical habitat in the interim final rule remains unchanged in this final rule.
Q. What is critical habitat?
A. Critical habitat is a component of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It identifies geographic areas that contain features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and may require special management considerations. The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve or other conservation area. It does not allow the government or public access to private lands. Federal agencies that undertake, fund or permit activities that may affect critical habitat are required to consult with the Service to ensure such actions do not adversely modify or destroy critical habitat. Critical habitat is identified using the best available scientific and commercial information about the physical and biological needs of the species. These needs may include:
• Space for individual and population growth, and for normal behavior
• Food, water, light, air, minerals, or other nutritional or physiological needs
• Cover or shelter
• Sites for breeding, reproduction, and rearing of offspring
• Habitat that is protected from disturbance or is representative of the historical geographic and ecological distribution of a species
Q. What are the habitat requirements (Primary Constituent Elements) for the Kootenai River white sturgeon?
A. Based on current knowledge of life history, biology and ecology of the species and the requirements of habitat to sustain the life history functions of the species, the Service has determined that the Kootenai sturgeon’s habitat requirements are:
(1) A flow regime, during the spawning season of May through June, that approximates natural variable conditions and is capable of producing depths of 23 ft (7 m) or greater when natural conditions allow. The depths shall occur at multiple sites throughout, but not uniformly within, the Kootenai River designated critical habitat.
(2) A flow regime, during the spawning season of May through June, that approximates natural variable conditions and is capable of producing mean water column velocities of 3.3 ft/s (1.0 m/s) or greater when natural conditions allow. The velocities shall occur at multiple sites throughout, but not uniformly within, the Kootenai River designated critical habitat.
(3) During the spawning season of May to June, water temperatures between 47.3 and 53.6 degrees °F (8.5 to 12 °C), with no more than a 3.6° F (2.1° C) fluctuation in temperature within a 24-hour period, as measured at Bonners Ferry.
(4) Submerged rocky substrates in approximately 5 continuous river miles (8 river kilometers) to provide for natural free embryo redistribution behavior and downstream movement.
(5) A flow regime that limits sediment deposition and maintains appropriate rocky substrate and inter-gravel spaces for sturgeon egg adhesion, incubation, escape cover, and free embryo development; the flow regime described under PCEs 1 and 2 above, should be sufficient to achieve these conditions.
Q. Will the designation of critical habitat for the sturgeon in the Kootenai River near Bonners Ferry affect use of my personal property?
A. A critical habitat designation only affects land uses that are authorized, funded or carried out by a Federal agency. If you are seeking Federal authorization or funding to conduct work on property that is within or adjacent to the critical habitat designation and that action is likely to adversely affect critical habitat, the Federal agency issuing the authorization or funding would be required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that such action does not adversely modify critical habitat.
Q. Will a critical habitat designation for the Kootenai River population of the white sturgeon affect recreation?
A. There may be a small loss of visitor-use days of Lake Koocanusa (approximately 4 percent) due to water releases at Libby Dam for sturgeon and bull trout. However, this loss may be offset by the increased recreational use on the Kootenai River below the dam resulting from in stream flows recommended for bull trout conservation.
Q. Will the designation of critical habitat for sturgeon in any way affect my flowage/seepage easement under Section 56 of Public Law 93-251?
A. No. The designation of critical habitat for sturgeon will not affect the releases of claims previously agreed upon under Section 56 of Public Law 93-251.
PL 63-251 was a unique opportunity for landowners in the Bonners Ferry area to be compensated for consequential damages such as seepage-related crop damage and erosion of river banks and levees from the authorized range of operations for Libby Dam. The designation of critical habitat will not change the authorized range of operations of Libby Dam.
Q. How can I get more information?
A. If you would like additional information please contact: Supervisor, Upper Columbia Fish and Wildlife Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 11103 East Montgomery Drive, Spokane, Washington, 99206, telephone: 509-891-6839, facsimile: 509-891-6748.