Free Press file photo
Fishing on the South Fork Clearwater River was seen March 1, 2010.
As of Tuesday, December 4, 2018
• Idaho River Community Alliance founded
• IRU swears off litigating to evaluate draft plan
Now the fishermen are lawyering up.
A notice of intent to sue filed in October was met by an Idaho Fish and Game commission decision to close the winter steelhead fishing season at the end of the last day of the notice period, Dec. 7. The closure stands to ripple through river communities from Orofino to Riggins that depend on steelhead fishing to bring anglers – and their wallets – to town during otherwise slow winter months.
Thus, the formation of a new steelhead fishing business interest group last Thursday night, Nov. 29, was front page news in Friday’s Lewiston Tribune, which reported 25 attended an organizational meeting of the Idaho River Community Alliance. The Trib reported the group hired an attorney “with the goal of inserting themselves into any negotiations or maneuverings that could fend off the pending closure of Idaho’s steelhead season or lead to an earlier reopening.”
The Free Press sought comment from Boise attorney Bill Mauk, who will represent the group of private people of Riggins and White Bird whose livelihoods stand to be directly affected by a public fight over the fate of this winter’s steelhead season.
“This group obviously needs to be in the game,” Mauk said Friday afternoon, Nov. 30. “The economic interests that are impacted by this are very important, short-term and long-term. I think it’s fantastic they’ve formed a concerted group and that will help for the dialogue that’s inevitably going to take place. I don’t have a sense that everybody is poised to run into court or that that’s the best way in which to solve this. The doors are open right now with the conservation groups and the Fish and Game and our new group, and we’re going to make the most out of the opportunity to have a free-flowing dialogue and see if we can come to some solution.”
At issue is what will come of state fishing managers’ 2010 punt of key paperwork to federal regulators, who bobbled it for eight years while focused on other aspects of Idaho’s steelhead fisheries before the potential for a crushing court collision with environmentalists became clear when the notice of intent was filed Oct. 9.
Asked about the prospects for such a solution to come soon enough for fishing to continue this month, Mauk said, “We’re optimistic that the opportunity for Fish and Game to reconsider exists, but I don’t want to give anybody any false optimism.”
About two hours after the Free Press talked to Mauk, one of the groups that had co-signed swore off taking the matter to court.
Idaho Rivers United announced its withdrawal, saying it “will not litigate this issue for two reasons,” in a Nov. 30 press release: “First, NOAA has released a draft management plan that, when finalized, will legalize the steelhead fishery. IRU’s priority has shifted to evaluating the draft plan to ensure that Idaho’s wild steelhead receive needed protections during their migration and spawning seasons. Second, we were surprised and disappointed that the Fish and Game Commission decided to close the steelhead season. Their decision hurt riverside towns, and many people we care about – people who are on a larger team to restore salmon and steelhead in Idaho. We regret that.”
Through its Facebook page, Idaho River Community Alliance issued the following statement on Saturday, Dec. 1, to the effect that the group intends to go through with a protest the Free Press first reported last week: “We are going to line Main Street with out-of-work fishing boats and collect in the parking lot at the park to show that Riggins isn’t a political pawn. We are a community that depends on steelhead season to get through the winter. Our families, schools and businesses depend on it. Join us Dec. 8 and deliver that message.”
“I think river communities should work together,” IRU executive director Kevin Lewis said Saturday afternoon, Dec. 1. “These fish are important. Having a stronger voice from these communities will help with what we suffer in Idaho, which is lack of leadership. Gov. Otter, 10 years ago, signed a deal that says we won’t sue the federal government over salmon returns and we will accept whatever the federal government says about salmon. They did that in exchange for $4 million, and what we left on the table was a restored fishery that would be worth half a billion dollars to Idaho. I think the local communities that depend on these fish for their livelihoods need to have a stronger voice.”
The Free Press has sought comment from two of the five other cosigners of the notice of intent – Moscow-based Friends of the Clearwater and Portland, Ore.-based The Conservation Angler – and will report their responses if and when they are received. Also signing the notice were Wild Salmon Rivers of Edmonds, Wash., Snake River Waterkeeper of Boise, and Wild Fish Conservancy of Duvall, Wash.
“I think the next two days will be very important in terms of communications among the parties,” said The Conservation Angler executive director David Moskowitz told the Free Press Sunday night, Dec. 2.
The period for public comment on the draft plan opened Nov. 6 and continues through Dec. 6; details are online at https://bit.ly/2KagTVB. During the interim without a formal permit, IDFG “has continued to conduct steelhead fisheries consistent with this  plan and in full awareness of the permitting agencies,” the department has said in news releases.