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(Many Paths)
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Back From Near Extinction:
Kootenais Open First Ever Hatchery for
Burbot and Sturgeon
by Jack McNeel - Indian COuntry Today Media Network

Drums throbbed and the sacred circle of life was on display last week at what the Kootenai Tribe hopes will be the rebirth of sturgeon and burbot, at a ceremony dedicating a massive new 35,000-square foot hatchery for propagating and rearing both species.

"Sturgeon and burbot are so unique it's amazing," said Sue Ireland, fish and wildlife director for the c Tribe of Idaho, at the October 9 ceremony. "They're just incredible creatures and are culturally significant to the tribe. They're really important here in the Kootenai River in the circle of life. This is really a special day in the restoration of these species."

A large crowd gathered in this rather remote location to dedicate the opening of the Twin Rivers Sturgeon and Burbot Hatchery, including Idaho's two U.S. Senators, Republicans Mike Crapo and Jim Risch. The Sookenai Singers from the Ktunaxa Nation in British Columbia provided drum music for the event.

The hatchery is the first facility, nationally or internationally, to be built to rear and release burbot to rehabilitate a native population. Burbot were once a primary winter food source for tribal members but the population has been nearly extirpated to an estimated 50 fish through many miles of the Kootenai River in Idaho. But changes in river flow after the 1975 completion of Libby Dam in Montana altered river conditions drastically, reducing both burbot and sturgeon numbers. Fortunately, another genetic source nearby has been found to furnish fish.

Sturgeon can live to be 100 and were even revered by the tribe as spiritual grandfathers able to lead tribal people safely up and down the river. The restoration of the two species has been a major goal of the Kootenai Tribe since its first sturgeon hatchery opened in 1991.

"We've been writing the book on sturgeon restoration," said Tribal Chairman Gary Aitken Jr., who, emceed the event. His father had been the first manager of the first sturgeon hatchery, and the younger Aitken worked there during those early years.

Habitat restoration has been under way for several years, with bank and riparian restoration, along with placement of rock substrate over clay bottoms to aid in improving spawning success. More projects are planned as well.

"Native people believe everything is connected, so we take a holistic approach," Aitken said. "We start from the bottom of the food chain up to the top and address all these factors we can. In doing so we forged partnerships where once we faced opposition."

The new hatchery will enable the sturgeon program to expand. The additional space will allow more females to be spawned and thus provide for more genetic diversity.

The tribe has been working with the University of Idaho since 2006 to develop techniques for rearing burbot. They are a predatory fish, even eating smaller burbot, and must be separated by size as they grow in the hatchery.

Burbot spawn in winter, and proper water temperature is critical for their survival. They reproduce in shallow waters, making them easy to net. Excellent to eat, they thus can serve as a food source in winter.

The Bonneville Power Administration is the primary funding agency. Money comes from rate payers and is used to mitigate the effects of dams built in the Columbia River.

"The hatchery is part of the largest aquatic restoration program in the country," said BPA Deputy Director Greg Delwiche. "We should be proud of where we are."

He also spoke of the "passion and gutsiness" of the Kootenai Tribe in reaching this point. "They've built success after success."

RELATED: White Sturgeon Rebound With Help From Kootenai Tribe of Idaho

The ceremony was a "tremendous opportunity to recognize what the Kootenai Tribe has done for the community, the state, the nation as they work to protect these tremendous fish, both sturgeon and burbot," Crapo said.

"I've worked with the tribe over the years on many different issues," the senator said at the opening. "It's incredible to see such wise leadership that the tribe has shown. They have learned the value of collaboration. They work together and work to make sure they address the issues of concern for all the stakeholders."

The hatchery itself is as unique as the cooperative, can-do spirit of the enterprise, he added, praising tribal members and their efforts.

"I'm not sure if there is a fish hatchery in Idaho that's larger than this one," Crapo said. "It's a beautiful facility that is going to help preserve sturgeon and burbot, and extend protection of our cultural heritage in this community while promoting economic growth and jobs and strength for the families who live in this area. I commend you for this."

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