History of Coeur d’Alene River WMA

History

The lower Coeur d’Alene River Valley was originally developed by farmers and loggers. Mining towns were established on the North Fork and South Forks of the Coeur d’Alene River after the discoveries of gold, silver, and lead. After settlement by European Americans, the river became a major transportation corridor. Steamboats carried freight and passengers to the upper limit of navigation at Cataldo and ore was carried on the return trip. The era of steamboats ended when the Union Pacific Railroad and a road system were constructed into the Silver Valley. 

The lower river floodplain has a history of significant mining related pollution dating back to the 1880s. The entire floodplain, including all wetlands and lakes, has a deep sediment layer that contains a large amount of water-borne mine wastes contaminated by heavy metals, primarily lead, cadmium, and zinc. Pollution control efforts by the mining industry have improved considerably over the past 100 years but the river system continues to move contaminated sediments downstream during annual flood events. The average lead content of sediments throughout the river floodplain is estimated at 2,500 parts per million. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, the Coeur d’Alene River was reported to be toxic enough that most aquatic life could not survive. Dead tundra swans were reported as early as 1924. Waterfowl deaths, primarily swans and Canada geese, have frequently occurred during the spring migration since the 1920s and continue to the present. Most of the mortalities have been due to lead poisoning from ingesting contaminated sediments. 

The construction of Post Falls Dam in 1906 and subsequent improvements in the 1940s impounded Coeur d’Alene Lake, backing water up the Coeur d’Alene River to Cataldo and up the St. Joe River to St. Joe City. Operation of the dam has disrupted the natural rise and fall of the lake and stabilizes water at a higher level from the spring run-off through September. Much of the low-lying land adjacent to the lower Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe rivers was rendered unusable for farming due to the higher water level throughout the growing season. 

Fish and wildlife carrying capacities are reduced in those lakes and wetlands that do not have dikes and water control structures to retain water at or near full pool elevation. Idaho FIsh and Game has been granted water right licenses to impound water and control water levels in many of the wetlands on the WMA to provide maximum benefits for fish and wildlife resources. 

Acquisition of the WMA began in 1964 with a gift of 364 acres from the American Game Association at Killarney Lake. The department authorized an aggressive expansion program primarily using Pittman-Robertson funding and Department license dollars and acquired additional parcels in Kootenai and Benewah counties. Other funding sources also used for acquisition included Dingell-Johnson funding, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, BPA, and the Ducks Unlimited MARSH program.