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The Missouri Three

Pallid Sturgeon, Paddlefish, Sauger

The Missouri RiverThe Missouri River

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Some families have been farming along the Missouri River for multiple generations. They worry that they cannot pass along their way of life to future generations. Conservationists, too, are concerned about future generations – of pallid sturgeon. Among these long-lived fish of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, no new generation has been born in the past 20 years.

Water Over the Dam

Pallid sturgeon, paddlefish, and sauger are fish species that evolved in warm, murky water, the conditions of the Missouri River when it could rightly be called “The Big Muddy.”

While the species differ in their needs, biologists believe that dams generally are detrimental to the fishes’ survival. Damming the Missouri controlled flooding and created recreation lakes, but the dams block the fishes’ access to spawning grounds, and dams make the water colder and clearer than what the fish need. Flood control has eliminated the natural spring rise of water that signals the fish that it’s time to spawn and provides the right conditions for spawning.

Fort Peck Dam and Reservoir lie within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The dam is operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District, which is charged with managing the water for fish and wildlife, hydroelectric power, recreation, flood control, water quality, water supply, navigation, and irrigation – uses that sometime conflict with one another. This charge is made even more challenging by Montana’s five-year drought.

The dam requires enough flow to generate hydroelectricity, for which Montana’s Rural Electric Cooperatives are the primary customers. From Sioux City, Iowa, downstream to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the barge industry need adequate water for navigation. The populous downstream states, mostly Missouri, put considerable political pressure on the Corps to maintain enough water – but not too much – to meet their needs.

Communities that depend on the fishing business want enough water retained in Fort Peck Reservoir to support populations of walleye, lake trout, and other popular sport fish and to keep boat ramps usable. There is little other economic activity to maintain these communities.

Diane Brandt, former state president of Walleyes Unlimited and co-owner of a Glasgow supper club, told the Billings Gazette, “It’s people traveling the Hi-Line or coming up from Glendive and Sidney, from North Dakota or Minnesota or Wyoming. It’s gas stations there, grocery stores, motels, restaurants, sporting goods. It’s not just the businesses around the lake. … It’s the whole region.”


"Genetic Duct Tape"—About the Pallid Sturgeon

Although plentiful in the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers decades ago, the pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus) declined dramatically after arrival of the dams, and this prehistoric fish species has been on the federal Endangered Species List since 1990.

Dams create two problems for pallids. First, they travel great distances to spawn, and dams interfere with these long migrations. Second, when pallid eggs hatch, the larvae drift helplessly for about a week before they are strong enough to hold their position in the current. Now, with the presence of dams and reservoirs, larvae may hatch close enough to a reservoir to drift in, where they’re quickly eaten by predator fish or they starve.

About 50 pallids live in the Missouri River upstream from Fort Peck Dam. Perhaps 200 live in the Missouri upstream of Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota. At spawning time, fish from this population travel up the Missouri and then turn into the warmer waters of the Yellowstone. But the diversion dam at Intake, Montana, stops their migration and they turn back without reaching spawning grounds. All of these fish are decades old, and no wild births had been documented in the past 20 years until this year when two larval pallids were captured in the Missouri River.

Working with other agencies, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks obtains eggs and sperm from adult pallids and raises young in hatcheries. Some young were released in summer 2002, and more in 2003. These releases can maintain the species. But as one FWP manager told the Billings Gazette, it’s “genetic duct tape.” FWP Fisheries Chief Chris Hunter says, “We hope we can keep them going artificially until habitat conditions change so they can complete their life cycle on their own.”


Go for Roe—About the Paddlefish

Once distributed from Pennsylvania to Montana, paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) now have only six self-sustaining populations in the country. These fish are long-lived – up to 60 years – and they do not mature sexually until they are 15 to 20 years old.

Equipped with a long upper bill or paddle, these fish swim open-mouthed to eat microscopic animals called zooplankton. When the Missouri River was dammed, the reservoirs became more productive than rivers for plankton, and the paddlefish have used the reservoirs, including Fort Peck. Paddlefish caught by anglers around Fred Robinson Bridge grew up in the Reservoir and migrated up the river to spawn. Their spawning habitat is located within the large, protected Wild and Scenic river corridor, which is now key to maintaining the population.

Once Lake Sakakawea was formed in North Dakota by Garrison Dam, paddlefish did well in that reservoir. About 15 years after “Lake Sak” was filled, paddlefish living there began to reach maturity, and they began what has become an annual migration, up the Missouri and into the Yellowstone. They began to collect at Intake, where the diversion dam on the Yellowstone blocks their passage. When anglers became interested in these fish, the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Glendive obtained legislation allowing them to make a special offer to anglers: donate the roe from your catch to the Chamber and have your paddlefish cleaned for free. The Chamber processes the roe into caviar (said to be world class), and the proceeds are used for fisheries improvement and other projects. Some 3,000 anglers a year come to the area to try their hand.

Some of the paddlefish roe funds support a long-term FWP study of the paddlefish, which has revealed that the population is declining. As a result, FWP reduced the number of paddlefish that can be taken annually from 1,500 to 1,000. The Glendive Chamber asked the state legislature to make the roe donation program permanent; the program was extended but not made permanent.


Leave Those Nymphs at Home

Paddlefish are big: the largest one caught during the 2002 season at Intake was 97 pounds. And they don’t eat anything that anglers can use for bait. So paddlefish are caught by snagging: dragging big hooks through the water. Here’s the Glendive Chamber’s suggested equipment list for catching paddlefish:

  • several 6/0 to 10/0 treble hooks
  • 40-80# test line
  • a heavy surf rod 8-12 feet long
  • a heavy-duty salt-water spinning reel or star-drag reel
  • 4-6 oz. weights

"No Respect"—About the Sauger

Sauger (Stizostedoin canadense) once lived throughout the Missouri and Yellowstone basins, including the headwaters of the Marias, Teton, Judith, Bighorn, Powder, and Tongue rivers. They now occupy only the Missouri and Yellowstone mainstems, a quarter of their historic range, earning them the state designation of “species of special concern.”

Population declines first noted in the late 1980s were attributed to drought, but even with recovery from drought in the mid-1990s, the sauger didn’t bounce back. FWP restricted sauger fishing and began research to determine where these highly mobile fish travel in the course of a year and why they are in decline. A 1999 study suggested that dams and other barriers to migration, combined with seasonal fishing pressure, may be preventing a sauger rebound. Significant numbers vanish in the irrigation canal at the Intake diversion dam on the Yellowstone.

Sauger are closely related to walleye, the non-native fish that means so much to the Fort Peck economy. While sauger have always been sport-fished, “they don’t command the respect” given the walleye, says Mark Albers of American Rivers. Also, sportsmen interested in species like sauger “aren’t as well-heeled or politically cohesive.” Walleye and sauger are known to interbreed, producing the ‘saug-eye,’ although the impact on the sauger population is not clear.


14 Years in the Making

The Corps of Engineers’ management of the Missouri is governed by the Missouri River Master Manual. The Corps undertook a revision of the manual to reflect contemporary social and economic conditions – the agency has been trying to complete this revision for 14 years. The process has been complicated by disputes among the Missouri River states, disagreements between the federal agencies, and lawsuits by various parties.

Montana Governor Judy Martz and the state’s Congressional delegation demanded late in 2002 that the Corps finalize the manual, and especially that river management recognize the rise of recreation at Fort Peck and the diminishing importance of the barge industry downstream. The demands were enough to bring Brig. Gen. David Fastabend, who oversees Corps activities in the Missouri and Columbia river drainages, to Billings in February 2003. At a standing-room-only public meeting, US Senator Max Baucus, US Representative Denny Rehberg, business owners from Fort Peck, and others criticized the Corps for allowing reservoir water levels to drop.

Dressed in camouflage, Fastabend told the crowd, “Being an Army guy, I just do what they tell me … my job is to balance these interests on the river while following federal laws, the courts, and Native American treaty rights.”


Irrigators’ Ire

A few days before the Billings meeting, ten conservation groups (American Rivers, National Wildlife Federation, and eight others) sued the Corps for failing to follow recommendations of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for Missouri River flow. The groups sued USFWS as well for failing to get the Corps to “toe the line,” says Mark Albers of American Rivers.

Charged with recovery of the pallid sturgeon and two endangered bird species (the piping plover and the least tern) on the Missouri, USFWS recommended that the Corps release higher flows in the spring about once every three years and lower flows during the summer. Among other benefits, the spring rise would cue fish to spawn and help build sandbars, which the birds would use in the summer. Over time, this scheme would achieve more natural outcomes, which would ultimately benefit all three species.

But the spring rise is a sore point with the Lower Missouri River Coordinated Resource Management Council. The Council was founded in 1995 by irrigators mainly in Valley, Roosevelt, Richland, and McCone counties. When water releases are increased for any reason, the higher water levels can flood and ruin their crops, make irrigation pumps inoperable, and completely erode out pump sites, resulting in expensive repairs.


On the Agenda

At the Council’s annual meeting in January 2003, irrigators complained to Corps representatives that the river level was too high, unnecessarily causing erosion, threatening damage to pump sites, and wasting water in times of drought.

More ominous to the irrigators, the Corps was planning a large release of water over the spillway to test the impact on native fish. (Water over the spillway would be warmer, which is what the fish need.) The drought makes such a test unlikely this year, but if it occurs, it will release “more water over the spillway than ever before,” says Buzz Mattelin, Council executive board member and meeting moderator, “which is not a comforting thought.” (Water flow during the proposed spillway test would still not approach the historical flows on the Missouri River.) Mattelin owns deeded land within the checkerboard of land ownership that makes up Fort Peck Reservation, and he got involved when increased river flows clogged his irrigation pumps.

Irrigators welcomed an announcement from Dave White, state conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montana, that NRCS may be able to pay for protective measures or repairs for pumps. “The Farm Bill has billions for conservation, which will put NRCS in a better position to help,” he said, quickly adding that a costly war in Iraq could draw funds way from conservation programs.

In his keynote address, Fort Peck tribal chairman Arlyn Headdress listed the many ways in which the Assiniboine and Sioux relate to the issues at hand. Tribal members have irrigation needs, they have treaty rights to the fish and wildlife, and they use willows, chokecherries, and other plants that grow on the riverbanks, sometimes in spiritual practices. The tribes work with the federal and state agencies to monitor conditions on the water, and they are part of species recovery efforts.

Rip Rap

At the stakeholders’ meeting in Wolf Point, Montana, one irrigator with land on the Missouri River says, “We don’t have rocks or trees for bank stabilization. We need something for rip rap.” The Corps representative explains that hard bank stabilization is regulated by environmental laws and generally opposed by government agencies. The irrigator persists, “But one guy used tires. He tried planting trees, but the beaver ate ‘em, so he used tires from the dump to stabilize his banks.” The NRCS representative tactfully explains that his agency can’t help with activity that breaks the law. Finally, another irrigator asks, “Well, can we engineer in habitat while we’re stabilizing the pump sites? What would enhance pallid habitat?” He explains that he read in Forbes magazine about an executive who planted grass on the roof of his house; the initial cost was high, but the net benefits included lower heating and cooling costs. “You read Forbes?” someone teases. “I’ll bet you order lattes, too.”


Comments Heard at the Council Meeting

Wolf Point farmer who grows corn, wheat, soybeans, sugar beets: “Why don’t they catch a pallid and mount it, hang it up on the wall? Then they’ll have one forever.”

Retired teacher who farms with her husband: “I’m here because of property rights. It’s like the Missouri Breaks national park or whatever it is. Clinton signs a paper, and you lose control of your property but you still pay taxes.”

A biologist reported studies that show pallids are not reproducing and that river conditions are the most likely problem. An irrigator in the audience responded that young pallids have been sighted and that predation by northern pike may be the real culprit. “I question these studies,” said the irrigator. “How truthful are these studies? How much are we really finding out?” The biologist responded, “I’m on the side of the fish, and I’m telling you what I think is really happening.” (The irrigator later apologized to the biologist.)

Irrigator to Corps of Engineers representative: “I got a letter from the Corps asking to buy my land from the high-water mark to the river. I’ve got a question for you: Can I buy your land from the curb to your doorstep?”

Corps of Engineers representative on its ‘flow to target’ strategy to provide river water where it’s needed: “This drought is as bad as the low of the 1980s. People think the Corps controls the flow of water, but this is Mother Nature. Flow-to-target is a band-aid on a cannon wound.”

US Fish and Wildlife Service representative: “It’s bad that there’s so much Washington involvement, so much politics, with legislative riders tying things up.”

Representative from the office of US Senator Conrad Burns: “I take offense at the comment about political activity. That comes from our constituency. Conrad heard the people, and he wrote to [Corps of Engineers Brig. Gen.] Fastabend.”

Meeting moderator at the end of the day: “I’m exhausted.”


The More, the Warier

The Lower Missouri River Coordinated Resource Management Council’s invitation list for its meetings indicates the scope of interest in management of the Missouri River:

  • Natural Resources and Conservation Service
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • US Army Corps of Engineers
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • US Environmental Protection Agency
  • US Geological Survey
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • Fort Peck Tribes (Assiniboine and Sioux)
  • Missouri River Basin Association
  • Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation
  • Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
  • Montana Department of Environmental Quality
  • Counterpart agencies in North Dakota
  • Western Area Power Administration
  • US congressional delegations
  • State and county officials and conservation district leaders in Montana and North Dakota.

One family patriarch homesteaded land …

… in 1922, across the Missouri River from what is now the Fort Peck Dam spillway. His son, his grandson, and his greatgrandson now farm that land. If the Corps releases water over the spillway, its first stop will be this family's pump site. The Corps is offering to build a dike to protect the site, but the family's current patriarch, now 80 years old, doesn’t think their proposed design will work.

His son, now middle aged, recalls fishing the Missouri and Milk rivers as a youngster, catching pallid sturgeon and sauger. But these folks don't fish anymore, they say, because they don’t have time. “Too busy farming!” About the flow issues on the Missouri, the son says, “We don’t want another Klamath,” referring to Oregon’s Klamath Basin, where in 2001, the Bureau of Reclamation cut irrigation to reserve water for endangered fish species, and federal marshals had to be called in to guard irrigation headgates from farmers. Although the Missouri River situation is somewhat opposite (irrigators believe too much water is being released from Fort Peck Dam), there are similar dire implications for agriculture. Farm economics are so tenuous, says the son, that “one bad year, and we’ll go under.”

The son notes that the Missouri used to be called the “Big Muddy,” with continuing erosion and shifting of banks. Asked about conservationists’ contention that it should be muddy again, he says, “But it’s clear and cold and beautiful. It’s healthy now.”

The Corps of Engineers sent a number of irrigators, including this family, an offer to buy their riverbank land, with the intention of letting it erode. The family describes this offer as a “slap in the face.” But when asked what they would do if offered big money for their entire properties, all of their land, this father and son fall into a quiet thoughtfulness, shake their heads, and say they don’t know.


Mark Albers grew up in Fort Benton …

… a self-described farm and ranch kid. “I used to catch sauger by the bucketful,” he recalls, “and they’re not there anymore.” Albers has a unique perspective on the management of the Missouri River – he’s worked for Montana FWP, National Marine Fisheries Service, Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Reclamation. His last government post was Missouri River coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1999, he opened the Great Falls office of the conservation group American Rivers.

Albers says of the river, “Biologically, things are definitely in a downward trend. Areas like the Wild and Scenic [portion of the Missouri River] look pretty good but are in tough shape. … My feeling is that long-term, people will come to their senses on issues like providing navigation support downstream. Recreation in the upper basin will start to trump that,” leading to more water maintained in the reservoirs. “Once you do that, you get some flexibility with flows. … to get those restorative flows downstream.” Those who want to support walleye populations and those who want more water released for natural flows “would both agree for different reasons.”

Told of one farmer's comment that a cold, clear river is healthier, Albers responds, “We’ve taught people that dirty water is bad water, that erosion is a bad thing. But it’s aesthetics, not ecology. … I’m not saying we shouldn’t have done that [built the dam]. But now the country has the affluence, we’re not in a Great Depression. Man is not so tied to the land, and we have room to look at these things from a different perspective. … By having a natural system that can maintain itself, you can support a community like Fort Benton, diversifying the economy, because you’ve got something here you have nowhere else.



  • Interviews with Chris Hunter, FWP; Mark Albers, American Rivers; Bill Miller, Corps of Engineers; Mike Olsen, US Fish and Wildlife Service; Edgar Garwood, Ron Garwood, irrigators, Fort Peck
  • ”An ancient fish gets some help from modern man,” by James Hagengruber, Billings Gazette, 6/30/03
  • “Paddlefish in the Missouri River above Fort Peck Reservoir,” FWP brochure
  • “Paddlefish harvest needs to be cut,” by Mark Henckel, Billings Gazette, 9/01/02
  • Glendive Chamber of Commerce
  • “Fort Peck low water drying up business,” by Mark Henckel, Billings Gazette, 12/19/02
  • Letter from Governor Judy Martz to Corps of Engineers Brig. Gen. David Fastabend, December 17, 2002
  • “Low water, rising tempers,” by Mark Henckel, Billings Gazette, 2/18/03
  • “Sagging sauger population gets a 24,000-fish boost,” by Michael Babcock, Great Falls Tribune, 7/04/02
  • “Fort Peck plan gives walleye prominence,” by Mark Henckel, Billings Gazette, 3/14/02
  • Status of Sauger in Montana, Thomas E. MacMahon, MSU-Bozeman, prepared for FWP, July 1999
  • “Pumps, Pallids, and People,” annual meeting of the Lower Missouri River Coordinated Resource Management Council, January 29, 2003, Wolf Point, Montana
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion, November 2000, Executive Summary
  • NRCS Montana Web site.

This vignette was completed in October 2003.