Congressional and Legislative AffairsExternal Affairs

STATEMENT OF DALE HALL,
REGIONAL DIRECTOR
U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE
BEFORE THE
COMMITTEE ON SMALL BUSINESS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON RURAL ENTERPRISE, AGRICULTURE
AND TECHNOLOGY
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ON ENDANGERED SPECIES IMPACTS

February 23, 2004

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony regarding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) recent amendment to our 2000 Biological Opinion on the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) operation of the Missouri River. I am Dale Hall, Director of the Service’s Southwest Region headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Service is the primary federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. Part of this responsibility includes implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under Section 7 of the ESA, federal agencies must, in consultation with the Service, ensure activities they authorize, fund or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the existence of an endangered or threatened species, nor result in the adverse modification of critical habitat. In cases where the Service determines that the proposed action will jeopardize the species, it must issue a Biological Opinion offering Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives (RPA) that provide suggested modifications to the project to avoid jeopardy to the species.

In 2000, the Service provided the Corps with a Biological Opinion on the Corps’ operation of the dams on the Missouri River. That opinion determined that the Corps’ proposed operations would jeopardize the existence of three listed species: the threatened piping plover, and the endangered interior least tern and pallid sturgeon. The Service’s 2000 Biological Opinion provided the Corps with RPAs that would avoid jeopardy to those species.

In 2003, the Corps requested to reinitiate consultation based on new mortality data for terns and plovers, designation of critical habitat for plovers in 2002 and new information regarding flow enhancement. Specifically, the Corps proposed to remove the requirements for a spring rise and low summer flows from Gavins Point Dam.

A team of Service experts, along with two technical experts from U.S. Geological Survey, reviewed the most recent scientific data and signed an amended Biological Opinion on December 16, 2003.

In reviewing the most recent scientific information, the team determined that the status of both piping plovers and interior least terns on the river has been improving in recent years. Piping plover numbers have increased by 460 percent within the Missouri River basin since 1997 and pair counts now exceed the recovery goals. The number of adult least terns has increased since the 2000 biological opinion, and the current estimate of more than 12,000 interior least terns exceeds the recovery goal of 7,000, although the goal of 2,100 tern for the Missouri River itself has not been met.

The status of the pallid sturgeon, however, has not improved, and the species continues to be of significant concern to Service biologists. Over the next two years, the Corps has the opportunity to evaluate several measures that are expected to benefit the sturgeon in particular, including
the feasibility of a temperature control device at Fort Peck.

After reviewing the recent data, the team accepted many elements of the Corps’ proposal and developed an amended opinion that retains the vast majority of the measures included in the 2000 biological opinion, but incorporates the Corps-proposed performance-based approach. This approach gives the Corps greater flexibility to manage the river while providing equal or greater conservation benefits to piping plover, interior least tern, and pallid sturgeon. The team concurred that the Corps’ proposed approach would continue to avoid jeopardy to the piping plover and interior least tern, but could not concur that jeopardy would be avoided for the pallid sturgeon.

The amended Biological Opinion includes an aggressive watershed approach, habitat creation and restoration, test rises along the river and an adaptive management and monitoring program. The opinion includes specific measures to address spawning cues and habitat improvement for sturgeon. This comprehensive approach builds on measures endorsed by the National Academy of Science when it conducted its review of the Missouri River science in 2000.

During the consultation process, the Service worked with the Corps to develop RPAs that are consistent with the intended purpose of the Corps’ action, and are economically and technically feasible, but yet would avoid the likelihood of jeopardizing the continued existence of listed species or resulting in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.

Specifically, the 2003 amendment to the 2000 Biological Opinion accepts several Corps substitutions to the 2000 RPA that will, in our opinion, continue to avoid jeopardy for the piping plover and interior least tern. In addition, new RPA elements were identified to avoid jeopardy for the pallid sturgeon. These RPAs direct the Corps to construct sandbar habitat in a manner that will benefit the needs of piping plovers and interior least terns; before 2006, complete studies to determine the appropriate flow out of Gavins Point Dam to achieve a bimodal spring spawning cue pulse and summer habitat flow, impediments to achieving this flow regime, and mitigation measures for these impediments; for the 2004 annual operation period, implement a summer habitat flow at or below 25,000 cubic-feet/second (cfs) out of Gavins Point Dam during July or otherwise provide sufficient shallow water habitat for the pallid sturgeon; and implement the amendment’s flow management plan, which includes two spring spawning cue pulses and a summer low flow, if the Corps is unable to develop a flow management plan by 2006.

Since the issuance of the amended Biological Opinion, the Service has met with the Corps numerous times to answer questions regarding the opinion and to assist the Corps in implementing the opinion’s RPAs. Within the framework of the amended biological opinion, these RPAs provide considerable flexibility to the Corps regarding how and where specific measures are undertaken including opportunities to develop appropriate management steps before prescribed measures would be required in 2006. We are also currently working with the Corps to determine if plans for near-term shallow water habitat are sufficient to meet the intent of the amended Biological Opinion, therefore allowing the Corps to operate for all congressionally-authorized programs this summer. Consequently, we expect to continue to work closely with the Corps through the 2004 operation and as they implement the opinion in the future.

In sum, the Service conducted a thorough review of all the information available since the 2000 biological opinion and determined that the Corps proposed operations would jeopardize the continued existence of the pallid sturgeon. The Service has concurred with many RPA element substitutions offered by the Corps and recommended several others to avoid jeopardy to piping plovers, interior least terns and pallid sturgeon that should allow the Corps and stakeholders along the river flexibility to implement the amended Biological Opinion.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I am pleased to answer any questions that you or other Members of the Subcommittee may have.