Nestled deep in Northern Idaho is the Priest River. This remote river begins at Priest Lake near the Canadian border and is one of the state’s many amazing recreation destinations.  The Priest River offers immense rafting and angling opportunities, including some amazing fly fishing. The 66 mile river is home to many species of trout, including the native Westslope Cutthroat and threatened Bull Trout. While the Priest is still remote and wild, a dam up in its top reaches has had a negative impact on the river’s water quality and habitat for decades. Fly fishing guide Hank Jones, of Inland Northwest Fishing Guides, gave us a call to bring a restoration project to our attention.

In 1950, a dam was build on Priest Lake near the river’s confluence.  Now, the Priest River is supplied warmer lake water, which is having an effect on its habitat and native trout species. In summer months, the Priest River is too warm for its native species to thrive. In 2016, Idaho’s Department of Environment Quality confirmed that the Priest River, below the dam to its confluence with the Pend Oreille River, is temperature impaired.

, Priest River Restoration Project Would Aid Endangered Bull Trout, Salmon Club Iceland
Westslope cutthroat trout in a pool in Priest River, IDFG

For years, the solution to restoring the Priest River’s temperatures has been known. The Kalispel Tribe and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game found that they had to lower water temperatures during the warmest July, August and September months and the easies solution would be “reducing surface outflow and replacing a portion of that with cold water from the bottom of the lake or other sources”. This is known as a cold water bypass project, and it has the potential to substantially lower summer water temps on the priest by pumping water from deep in the lake, across the dam, and into the river.

, Priest River Restoration Project Would Aid Endangered Bull Trout, Salmon Club Iceland

However, this project, which seems simple and uncontroversial has met resistance from landowners along the lake, who claim the project would lower the lake’s levels and effect their properties. According to Idaho’s Fish and Wildlife, that would not happen.

Last year’s drought and heat waves took a toll on the priest river. “During the heatwave of summer 2021, Priest River water temperatures exceeded lethal levels for most coldwater fish species for an extended period of time; during the hottest days, water temperatures in parts of the river even exceeded 80 degrees! With limited access to nearby coldwater refuge, the end result was a fish kill in parts of the river,” according to a IDFG story.

, Priest River Restoration Project Would Aid Endangered Bull Trout, Salmon Club Iceland

“The Lower Priest River struggles with increasingly warm temperatures and low flows most summers making it very hard for bull trout to navigate the river to cooler spawning grounds,” said Erin Plue, Trout Unlimited’s Coeur d’Alene Project Manager. “This river has been dealt many challenges and received very little attention. Trout Unlimited and many other stakeholders believe that it’s time to find real, long term solutions for the Priest River.”

A petition is now gathering signatures to convince Idaho to continue pursuing the project and restore the Priest River’s native fish species. Also, be sure to check out Priest River Project site.

Photos by Hank Jones and IDFG

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