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Pallid Sturgeon on Lower Yellowstone Could Get Bypass Instead of River

There are only about 125 pallid sturgeon left in the lower Yellowstone River. (USFWS Mountain-Prairie)
There are only about 125 pallid sturgeon left in the lower Yellowstone River. (USFWS Mountain-Prairie)
October 17, 2016

GLENDIVE, Mont. – Federal agencies say the best option for conserving the endangered pallid sturgeon is to provide a bypass channel to the Yellowstone Intake Dam. Opponents of the project not only disagree, they say that the option is a waste of money.

The final Environmental Impact Statement from the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation said the bypass alternative balances fish recovery with farmers' irrigation needs. But Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, said the bypass option is untested.

"Basically what they have done is, they have selected an experimental alternative assuming that pallid sturgeon will use a long, constructed, engineered bypass channel around a larger dam,” Farling said. "And there's no science available - zero - that says pallid sturgeon will use a bypass of this sort."

An independent review of the bypass, which would include improvements to the Intake Dam, said the project would cost $57 million. Farling said removing the dam, while costly, is the best option for the sturgeon, and could save money in the long run if the bypass doesn't work.

The Intake Dam is located near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.There are only about 125 wild pallid sturgeon remaining in the Upper Missouri River basin.

Farling said his organization and other conservation groups have suggested removing the current river diversion and replacing it with a pumping system to irrigate surrounding farmland. He said it's a tried and true solution. But the agencies have already rejected that option.

"There have been instances where the Bureau of Reclamation, one of the agencies here, replaced irrigation dams on rivers and replaced them with pumping systems,” Farling said. "So, we weren't asking these guys to create a rocket to Mars."

The pallid sturgeon has been in trouble since dams went up on the Missouri River more than 50 years ago, according to Steve Forrest, a senior representative for the Rockies and Plains program at Defenders of Wildlife. And the fish haven't successfully reproduced since.

"We know now that those dams have disrupted the way that at least young, larval sturgeon mature. They don't have enough time to grow into swimming young,” Forrest said. "By the time they reach the next reservoir downstream, they sink to the bottom and suffocate and die. So, the clock is ticking."

After a review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agencies are allowed to make a final decision no sooner than 30 days after the impact statement is published in the Federal Register. That will happen on Oct. 21.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT