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Enviro groups pledge suit against Corps

| December 14, 2006 11:00 PM

The Center for Biological Diversity and WildWest Institute on Wednesday notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers they will sue the agency for actions they say condemn the endangered Kootenai River white sturgeon to extinction.

The groups also plan to sue the Corps for allegedly illegally harming threatened bull trout and failing to follow key provisions of two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinions, which detailed plans to save both fish.

The Corps last spring released large amounts of water through the spillway at Libby Dam, which can harm fish through gas bubble trauma - analogous to the "bends" in scuba divers.

An "after action report" produced by the Corps concluded that no spill would have occurred if the Corps had been operating in strict accordance with an alternative water storage procedure called VARQ that is designed to store enough water to allow for flows to benefit both sturgeon and listed salmon. The report also acknowledged that gas bubble trauma symptoms were detected in almost all resident species after two weeks of sustained spill.

"Harm of bull trout resulting from failure to follow a biological opinion amounts to criminal activity on the part of the Corps and the top level bureaucrats that elected to ignore measures to protect the sturgeon and other fish," said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Corps' operation of Libby Dam is leading the Kootenai River white sturgeon to extinction, Greenwald said.

"Action by the Corps is needed now to save the magnificent Kootenai River white sturgeon, whose ancestors have been on the planet for 250 million years, and which can live 90 years and reach 350 pounds," he said

Following completion of Libby Dam in 1974, spring flows were drastically reduced, forcing sturgeon to spawn downstream of Bonners Ferry in sandy stretches of the river. In this inhospitable habitat, sturgeon eggs suffocate or are left to drift and perish by the millions every year, resulting in near complete reproductive failure over the past 30 years.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimates that there are now fewer than 500 adult sturgeon left and that based on a rate of decline of 9 percent per year, the population drops by half every seven-and-a-half years.

Three biological opinions and a recovery plan for the sturgeon have all called for increasing flows released from Libby Dam to more closely mimic the natural conditions of the river and to encourage sturgeon to spawn above Bonners Ferry, where there is suitable habitat.

The Center for Biological Diversity and WildWest Institute are already in court challenging inadequacies in Fish and Wildlife's most recent biological opinion, which was issued Feb. 18, 2006. The state of Montana has joined that suit supporting the Center's position. The Kootenai Tribe has joined supporting the Fish and Wildlife Service's position.