In the past 20 years, scientists have gained a wealth of knowledge about the pallid sturgeon’s life cycle and feeding habits and the best ways to raise young pallids in hatcheries.
“We’ve stopped the bleeding of the major arteries,” said George Jordan, who leads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s pallid sturgeon recovery team. “We’ve been able to buy a lot of time.”
Despite such gains, it’s estimated that it will take another 34 years before the fish is removed from the endangered-species list at an estimated cost of $250 million.
The details are found in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s recently updated draft plan for the recovery of the species. Challenges facing the fewer than 200 wild fish in Montana’s Missouri and Yellowstone rivers range from water quality issues that have affected some of the fishes’ sexual development to the apparent inability of the fish to successfully reproduce in the wild.
The main culprit in the fishes’ decline has been dams that have altered habitat, blocked passage, changed water temperatures and removed turbidity that the fish like.
About 4,000 of the fish are estimated to live throughout the entire Missouri-Mississippi river system.
Comments are being taken on the plan until April 15.
On the bright side
Despite what may seem like a gloomy future for a fish that can trace its ancestry back 70 million years, Jordan remains upbeat. Jordan, who works out of Billings, has been on the recovery team since 1994 and has been the team leader since 2005.
“Right now, there are a couple of items I see as beacons of hope hanging on the horizon,” he said.
One of those has been the ability to reproduce pallid sturgeon in hatcheries to supplement the wild stock. That has given the team more time for changes on the landscape to take effect.
In Montana, one of the biggest benefits possible for pallid sturgeon would be the building of a fish passage at Intake Diversion Dam, north of Glendive, on the Yellowstone River. Passage there would allow the fish access to another 165 miles of river. That effort looked promising until a rock ramp, proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, was found to be too steep for the big fish to navigate. A new design has been delayed as the Corps has dealt with the repercussions of a historic flood season in 2011 that swept along the length of the Missouri.
A route for fish around the dam would allow pallid sturgeon to move farther up the Yellowstone to spawn. Right now, it’s believed that after sturgeon hatch, the larva are floating into Lake Sakakawea and dying or being eaten by other fish. Allowing the fish to get farther upstream may help young pallids survive.
Modification of the Cartersville Dam near Forsyth would add even more mobility for pallid sturgeon and other native fish to migrate up the Yellowstone, expanding their habitat by another 40 miles and possibly increasing the sturgeon’s chances for successful reproduction in the wild.
The other benefit from 20 years of work that Jordan has seen is a greater partnership between state and federal agencies working toward a common goal to recover the species.
“These guys are dedicated to serving the fish,” he said.
Seeing that cooperation, landowners and irrigation district members have been more amenable to working to save pallid sturgeon and other native fish, Jordan added.
One example of that work was the installation of a new headgate and screens on the irrigation canal fed by the Intake Diversion Dam. Without the screens, it was estimated that more than 577,000 fish were being lost in the canal system each year.
Another example is the installation of a fish bypass on the Tongue River’s T&Y Diversion Dam near Miles City.
Jordan said hatchery-raised fish that were released into the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in the 1990s are now old enough to reproduce, proving that the fish can survive in the wild. That’s important since in another five to six years, some of the remaining wild fish may begin dying from old age. By the 2020s, all of the remaining wild fish are likely to be gone, Jordan said.
It’s easy for Jordan to say that the best way to recover the species would be to remove some of the large dams on the Missouri River, like the one that created Fort Peck Reservoir. But he knows that is politically unrealistic. That’s why modification of Intake Diversion Dam seems like the easiest way to expand habitat for a species that has been corralled into smaller stretches of river by the creation of dams along the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.
Over the past 20 years, biologists and researchers have been able to prove that habitat exists above Intake Diversion Dam that could support the fish, and that they historically lived farther upstream.
“We’re trying to balance out uncertainty, potential risks and benefits,” Jordan said. “I think folks want to do something beneficial to the species.”