Not all rivers are created equally. Some, like the St. Joe River in North Idaho, boast good habitat and reliably cold water, resulting in robust coldwater fish populations, such as westslope cutthroat and bull trout. However, others, like the Priest River, are not so fortunate.
For decades, Priest River has suffered from warm water temperatures during the summer months. Coldwater fish and warm water don’t mix well, and that reality came to a head in July 2021 with an unprecedented fish kill.
“My wife and I have lived and recreated on the Priest River for almost 42-years,” said Jon Quinn-Hurst, a local on the river. “The fish kill of July 2021 was devastating. It was heartbreaking to see hundreds of dead fish littering the shoreline.”
Rob Ryan, Regional Fisheries Biologist for Idaho Fish and Game, said the fish kill was not a surprise relative to the Priest River.
“Trout are coldwater fish, and the Priest River is too warm.” Ryan said. “Temperatures in the 50–60 degree Fahrenheit range are great for trout. When temperatures exceed 70 degrees, trout start to get stressed and potentially die because of warm water temperatures, especially when the warm temperatures are prolonged.”
Temperatures in excess of 70 degrees for extended periods of time occur annually in Priest River, typically during July and August.
Priest River is fed by water from the surface of Priest Lake, which warms during the summer, so it has likely always been warmer than other regional rivers. However, operations of Outlet Dam at the south end of Priest Lake along with warming trends in climate have likely exacerbated the issue. Thankfully, opportunity to improve temperature, habitat and the fish community the river supports may exist.
The local community along with many organizations are becoming more aware of the plight of Priest River, and they are beginning to organize.
“The fish kill has been a catalyst of some really great things over the past year,” said Quinn-Hurst. “People are becoming more aware of the health of the river and are exploring options to help Priest River and the fish that call it home.”
Priest River Watershed Group and other resources
Fish and Game, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Trout Unlimited and many other organizations and local residents desire to restore and enhance the Priest River and its fisheries to ensure it can be enjoyed by future generations in perpetuity.
Trout Unlimited is organizing a Priest River Watershed Group, which will host its first public meeting on Dec. 7 from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Priest River Event Center at 5399 U.S. Route 2 in the town of Priest River. The meeting is the first of many, and it is open to anyone interested in improving the fishery in the Priest River.
If you’d like to learn more about the Priest River, visit the new Fish and Game Priest River webpage. The page contains information dating back to 1957, along with a list of frequently asked questions. Visit idfg.idaho.gov/priest-river for more information.
For more information or if you have questions, please contact the Panhandle Regional office.
You can also follow the Panhandle Region Facebook page to get regular news and updates.