I have recently retired as chairman of Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission. As a commissioner between 2007 and 2019, I have watched as Montana state government, the federal government, and the public wrestle with the best way forward for long-term recovery and management of pallid sturgeon, paddlefish and other warm-water fish species in the lower Yellowstone.
The primary impediment to the long-term health of the lower Yellowstone fishery is the diversion structure at intake. This structure blocks the upstream migration of paddlefish and pallid sturgeon. Both of these species require long stretches of river for spawning success. The diversion at intake blocks the upstream migration and undercuts the natural reproduction of these fish. The result: Successful spawning and recruitment of new pallids into the Yellowstone and upper Missouri rivers has been halted. Currently, fewer than 100 wild spawning-age pallids use the whole upper Missouri River Basin, including the Yellowstone River. Their numbers continue to shrink. They could soon blink out.
In an effort to connect the lower Yellowstone and the river immediately upstream of the diversion, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans on spending an estimated $59 million of a congressional appropriation designated for “ecosystem restoration” in the lower Yellowstone basin. Specifically, the agency plans to spend the restoration dollars by building a larger, more permanent dam in the river while also constructing an artificial two-mile-long bypass channel around the new dam to theoretically allow the fish to migrate above the diversion and spawn successfully.
Sounds like a win-win for irrigators and fish, right? Yes, the irrigators will get a superior irrigation diversion — built with rare federal ecosystem restoration dollars — but pallid sturgeon and other species like paddlefish’s long-term survival may very well be damaged.
From what I have read, scientific evidence demonstrating pallid sturgeon navigate engineered bypass channels is scant. Most biologists agree (including the group of experts assembled by the Corps) that the bypass is unlikely to work for pallids. Biologists working in the area are concerned this project will also impede the ability of other fishes — including sauger, paddlefish, disappearing blue suckers and channel cats — to move freely up and down the river to spawn. The Corps is gambling $59 million of rare federal conservation dollars to improve irrigators’ water delivery while not addressing the federal objective for ecosystem restoration dollars.
There is another way to do this that could work for irrigators and fish. The Corps could build the bypass without the new dam. The irrigators could continue using the existing diversion until monitoring determines whether or not the engineered channel results in pallids, paddlefish and other warm-water species successfully spawning upstream of the Intake diversion. If it works, then build the permanent irrigation dam. If it does not work, remove the rubble diversion and invest in pumps in the river to deliver water to the irrigators.
This phased approach at intake can work. The Corps’ environmental analysis states that the new dam isn’t necessary for developing the bypass channel. Further, simple prudence dictates that the Corps adaptively manage this project by first testing the hypothesis that the bypass channel will successfully provide passage for pallid sturgeon, paddlefish and other warm-water species while also spending dollars the way Congress intended. What’s wrong with that?