July 20, 2016
Heidi Ridgley

One of the largest freshwater fish in North America needs our help

Dating to the time of the dinosaurs, the endangered pallid sturgeon is now making its last stand in the murky waters of the upper Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

For generations, the pallid sturgeon swam freely in rivers from Montana to New Orleans. But dam building in the 1900s disrupted the rivers’ natural sediment, flow, temperature and oxygen levels. This destroyed and cut off access to much of the sturgeon’s spawning grounds. Any eggs that do hatch head downstream where they suffocate and sink to the bottom of oxygen-deprived reservoirs.

For possibly as many as 60 years, no wild-born pallid sturgeon—protected as an endangered species since 1990—has survived to adulthood. And now the 125 or so six-foot-long adults that endure are nearing the end of their lifespans.

To make matters worse, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation want to upgrade an existing dam at Intake, Montana, which blocks these fish from essential spawning grounds.

In May, the agencies released a draft environmental impact statement, proposing to build a fish bypass canal around the dam. Yet, in the same impact statement, the agencies admit they are not confident that the fish bypass will work. Many biologists who have studied the sturgeon believe it is unlikely the fish will use it, partly because we don’t know exactly what draws pallids to natural channels in the first place, and partly because we don’t know how conditions in the bypass will be managed. The truth is, no pallid sturgeon has been known to use a fish bypass, and other sturgeon species are notoriously shy of bypasses.

So not only is the Corps willing to risk the future of a species dating back 78 million years, but it is also willing to take a shot in the dark with $60 million taxpayer dollars.

Defenders and NRDC are advocating for a different solution, as are groups such as American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, and the Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. We suggest the best way to recover the pallid sturgeon is to remove the dam at Intake, giving pallid sturgeon access to an additional 165 miles of free-flowing river and a chance to successfully reproduce. With the dam removed, engineers can install a pumping system to ensure water is still delivered to the farmers who need it. It’s a win-win solution.

The agencies claim removing the dam and installing pumps has a high price tag. But in 2010, the government spent $180 million on the Red Bluff Fish Passage Improvement Project on the Sacramento River in California. Its goal was to protect salmon and green sturgeon runs blocked by the dam’s gates, and to stabilize water supplies for 150,000 acres of nearby farmland. It worked. And the same can be done at the smaller dam at Intake for tens of millions of dollars less.

Please join us in asking the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation to free our iconic Yellowstone River, and save our ancient dinosaur fish!

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Heidi Ridgley

Editor of Defenders Magazine
Heidi Ridgley is editor of Defenders magazine, covering some of the country’s most imperiled wildlife species, what Defenders of Wildlife and conservationists are doing to
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