The Coeur d’Alene River is historically the meeting site of multiple tribes, including the Nez Perce, and its surrounding camas prairielands were a major source of food pre-contact. The arrival of Euro-American settlers saw increasing pollution in the river’s waters, a problem that continues today.
Though it covers a small portion of northern Idaho’s land, the Coeur d’Alene River Wildlife Management Area has its roots in a cultural history that once spread across the Columbia Plateau. Situated just north of Idaho’s camas prairielands, the Coeur d’Alene River is part of a complex that ranges from lake to canyon to prairie. The river and its basin lake were named for the Coeur d’Alene people, originally known as the Schitsu’umsh, who made their homes in the area. They were not alone, however: the Nez Perce, among other tribes, would collect the bulbs of the local camas flower for their own food and later brought horse herds to the prairie to graze.
When French, British, and Dutch traders came to the Americas, the Coeur d’Alene made various treaties with them to preserve access to their native lands. However, once the United States became a full-fledged entity, they continually encroached on Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce territory. During the 1855 treaty negotiations in Walla Walla, Washington, newly appointed Washington governor Isaac Stevens pressed the Nez Perce into moving to a miniscule reservation in exchange for access to their ancient hunting and fishing lands. In subsequent decades, homesteaders discovered the large quantities of gold, silver, and lead on the already diminished reservations, and instead of enforcing tribal sovereignty, the federal government turned a blind eye. Despite resistance from bands of Nez Perce, the government seized both Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce reservation lands and opened them up for non-native colonization.
This decision had long-lasting impacts on the landscape, especially the Coeur d’Alene River. Runoff from nearby mines polluted the surrounding waters, and within a few decades, the river became toxic. In the 1920s and 1930s, environmental surveys found that most aquatic life could no longer survive in the Coeur d’Alene’s waters, and migrating waterfowl frequently died as well. To address this crisis, in conjunction with other widespread environmental efforts in the 1960s, the American Game Association donated a large parcel of land in the Coeur d’Alene River’s vicinity to Idaho Fish and Game, creating what eventually became Coeur d’Alene River Wildlife Management Area. More aggressive cleanup began in the 1980s when the EPA designated Bunker Hill Mine, located along the river, a national cleanup priority.
In recent years, the Coeur d’Alene’s waters have become significantly clearer, owing to the vigilance of state and federal organizations and proactive restoration projects in the area. Though the river basin is full of wildlife once again, mining pollutants still rest on Lake Coeur d’Alene’s bottom, overlooked by river cleanup efforts. Pollution in Coeur d’Alene River WMA remains a present threat and is just one example of how historical mistreatment of the land has lasting consequences.