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Steelhead fishing undisrupted by shutdown, but delay could keep closed river sections from reopening this winter

Steelhead and fishermen alike piled up at the South Fork Clearwater River “Snag Hole” in late March 2014.

Photo by Andrew Ottoson
Steelhead and fishermen alike piled up at the South Fork Clearwater River “Snag Hole” in late March 2014.

The federal government shutdown affects many agencies, including the U.S. Department of Commerce – a fork of the executive branch, one outgrowth of which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from which stems federal management of oceangoing fish such as salmon and steelhead.

Late last year, NOAA’s sway over Idahoans’ daily lives burst into view when it appeared steelhead fishing season would be called off as environmentalists and the state were headed to court over Idaho’s lack of paperwork required for compliance with federal environmental law.

With sides having stepped back from the brink of that court fight in favor of a settlement agreement, the long-awaited paperwork under which Idaho’s steelhead fishing proceeds is anticipated later this winter. But work on the permit is not exempt from the government shutdown.

“NOAA Fisheries’ activities related to the steelhead litigation are not excepted and the staff in the region who work on this project are furloughed," NOAA director of communications Julie Kay Roberts told the Free Press Friday, Jan. 4. "While not a party to the litigation or negotiated settlement, NOAA's understanding of the negotiated settlement between potential litigants and Idaho Fish and Game is that it allows the steelhead fishery to continue without litigation until March 15.”

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game isn’t worried about the shutdown disrupting steelhead fishing that is presently open, but delaying the permit paperwork may keep closed parts of the South Fork Clearwater River and Salmon River drainages that were closed under the agreement.

“It’s definitely something we’re keeping an eye on, but not a big concern yet,” IDFG public information supervisor Roger Phillips told the Free Press Jan. 3. “According Lance Hebdon, our anadromous fish manager, the settlement expires in mid-March. NOAA indicated their timeline for permit issuance pre-shutdown was early February which gives us somewhere between 4-6 weeks of cushion. … Much of this is beyond our control, but we’re still doing all we can to ensure NOAA hits that target date of mid-February, which will give our commission the opportunity to reopen some fishing areas if that’s deemed appropriate.”

At issue in the shutdown is funding for border security; on Thursday, Jan. 3, Sen. Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern told the Free Press "the hope is the shutdown will not drag on."

In response to the Free Press question -- whether Sen. Risch has any worry the shutdown may delay NOAA's progress on the steelhead paperwork -- communication director Kaylin Minton said the following Friday, Jan. 4: “The basis of the question is hypothetical, and Senator Risch does not want to speculate. However, he is optimistic NOAA will meet their prescribed timeline for issuing incidental take permits. This has been a difficult issue for our state and economy, one which Senator Risch is following closely and working with the Idaho congressional delegation, Fish and Game and NOAA to see a resolution as quickly as possible."

Before the steelhead fishing settlement agreement was concluded, the Idaho Congressional Delegation – Rep. Raul Labrador, Rep. Mike Simpson, Sen. Mike Crapo and Sen. Jim Risch – sent NOAA a letter requesting NOAA issue the permit by the end of January. A copy of that letter, and a copy of the agreement environmentalists reached with the State of Idaho, can be found online at


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