February 15, 2016

Call for the Army Corps of Engineers to remove the dam in Yellowstone River and save the endangered pallid sturgeon

Moving slowly along the silty bottom of the Yellowstone River is a creature that dates back to the time of the dinosaurs. Massive, bewhiskered, and covered with bony plates, the pallid sturgeon is one of the most remarkable residents of the upper Missouri River watershed. And as the ambassador for its ecosystem, what happens to the pallid sturgeon may decide the fate of dozens of other species that live in these waters.

An Ancient Species Pitted Against Modern Threats

The design of these primitive-looking fish is the same today as it was in the days of the dinosaurs. This species even survived the great extinction that wiped out so many others – including the dinosaurs – 78 million years ago. Stoically grubbing in the muddy depths of their home rivers for millennia, seemingly immune to the process of evolution, sturgeon apparently never bothered (or needed) to upgrade to a finer-looking package.

Although they’ve survived for eons, the sturgeon is no match for human development today. They have nearly vanished from their historic stronghold in the upper Missouri River Basin, from Iowa to Montana. It appears that no surviving pallid sturgeon offspring have been produced in the wild in sixty years — since construction of the upper Missouri River dams. The last 125 remaining wild sturgeon from this population are nearing the end of their lives. If a solution isn’t found soon, we will witness yet another extinction.

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Sub-Adult pallid sturgeon, Pallid sturgeon, © Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS

The Fight to Protect the Pallid

With this urgent concern in mind, Defenders and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit last year against the agencies operating dams in the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers: the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation. The Corps operates the dams on the Missouri River that have destroyed the pallid sturgeon’s habitat. The Bureau built and operates an old diversion dam called Intake on the Yellowstone River, one of America’s longest remaining unregulated rivers, and a major tributary of the Missouri.

Both dams have had a serious impact on pallid sturgeon. And because the fish is protected under the Endangered Species Act, this is not only a moral problem – it’s a legal one. For most of us, the logical solution would be to remove the dam, which has stopped pallid sturgeon from reaching spawning grounds upriver for over a century. Simple. But in an absurd twist, the Corps proposed to build an even larger concrete dam (one that would also block other fish besides pallid sturgeon) and include an artificial bypass. When we challenged this proposal in court, showing that many scientific studies agree that this artificial “fishway” wouldn’t actually help sturgeon, we won a court-mandated time out. The court halted construction of the dam – at least temporarily – and gave us time to find a better option.

Down with the Dam

Working with our partners and with experts on the fish living in these rivers, we are developing a “no dam” alternative for the Corps and the Bureau to consider. Our hope is to find what should have been considered from the beginning: A way to give irrigators the water they need while making sure that the Yellowstone River’s pallid sturgeon can still make their way upstream to spawn.

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Pallid sturgeon, © Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS

We know it will be an uphill battle. The Corps is eager to return to its dam-building, and the agencies may not listen to what we have to say – unless the public demands it. That’s why it is critical that anyone who wants to help protect pallid sturgeon join us in calling on the Corps to take this unneeded dam out of the Yellowstone River. We need to restore the Yellowstone, not erect one more barrier whose construction will no doubt come to haunt us in the future.

Far from the age where the pallid sturgeon first began, we are now in the Anthropocene. Man is the driving force behind all of the planet’s change, and the Earth’s resources are increasingly commandeered for the sole purpose of feeding and fueling our endless appetites. But this should also be an era of enlightenment. We have the sophistication to get what we need more efficiently, and with a greater awareness of the consequences than at any time in our history. And right now, we have the power to make sure that the pallid sturgeon doesn’t become yet another cautionary tale about the costs of unhindered development.

And as unique as it is, the pallid sturgeon is just one of a whole host of other Missouri River ecosystem fish who have also begun to signal their distress. The sauger, sturgeon chub, sicklefin chub, burbot, blue sucker and paddlefish all rely on the silty, warm waters of big rivers. The fate of the pallid sturgeon may be their fate as well.

Help us convince the agencies to kill the dam, not the fish. Sign the petition to remove the dam, and help us to spread the word! The pallid sturgeon has survived cataclysmic change – we can’t let humans bring an end to this species now.

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