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Section 7 Consultation

Operation & Maintenance of the Upper Mississippi River for Navigation

Questions and Answers

Process and Outcomes

Q: Will implementing the biological opinion on Operation and Maintenance of the 9-foot Channel on the Upper Mississippi River stop barge traffic?

A: Implementation of the biological opinion will not stop barge traffic. The Service recognizes that commercial navigation is important to the commerce of the nation. However, we believe fish and wildlife resources should be given equal consideration with navigation on the Mississippi River. In fact, Congress has recognized the UMR as both a nationally significant natural resource and commercial resource.


The Endangered Species Act requires all Federal agencies to utilize their authorities to further the conservation of listed species as well as to consult with the Service any time their planned actions would affect those species. The Service and the Corps are working together within their authorities and responsibilities to protect and save listed threatened and endangered species from the adverse impacts of the operation and maintenance of commercial navigation on the UMRS. The Service and the Corps are required to seek species-protecting solutions or alternatives that are consistent with project objectives and within the action agency's responsibilities, authorities, and budget. Solutions that meet those standards were developed for the biological opinion and are being implemented.


Q: Doesn't a finding of jeopardy for any species require operation and maintenance to be stopped and that consequently barge traffic on the river will be stopped?

A: No. The Service and the Corps have worked closely together to develop reasonable and prudent alternatives (RPA's) or reasonable and prudent measures (RPM's) to avoid jeopardy and/or harm to the species. None of the RPAs/RPMs developed require cessation of operation and maintenance. Following implementation of these alternatives, the status of the species will be monitored to ensure that the project is not continuing to adversely affect the species. If it is, then consultation would be reinitiated to search for more and better solutions to the problem.


Q: What will the Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives and Reasonable and Prudent Measures (RPAs/RPMs) cost? Who pays?
A: Costs are uncertain but will be a small fraction of 1 percent of the proposed 50-year UMR Navigation Project. The U.S. taxpayers, through the Federal action agency and other parties, will share the cost of conservation measures.


Q: Will the consultation delay needed channel or lock and dam maintenance?

A: The Service anticipates no delay to maintenance or shipping as a result of the consultation. However, the Act requires that the Federal action agency not commit any resources that would preclude the development of alternatives that might preclude jeopardy of any species. The consultation may affect the scheduling of construction of some operation and maintenance structures and may require the modification of some structures. We will be working cooperatively and expeditiously with the Corps of Engineers to avoid or minimize delays.


Q: What is the value of protecting species like mussels?

A: The Nation, through Congress and with the signature of the president, decided to create the Endangered Species Act in a deliberate national effort to prevent avoidable extinctions of plants and animals. In its hearings and deliberations before drafting the Endangered Species Act, Congress found these species have great value to the nation beyond immediate practical utility. These other values include scientific, educational, historical, cultural, and recreational values akin to those of our great historical sites, architectural achievements, cultural celebrations, and recreational pursuits. To be on a part of a river with a healthy mussel populations is often to be on the most natural part of the river. The mussels are a tangible reminder that a family is making its best possible connection with a river close to the way it was when Indians, European explorers, and early traders and settlers paddled its surface above the ancestors of the very mussels beneath them on their modern visit.


Americans care about endangered species from their heart and feeling side, as well as from their material usefulness side. They care about endangered species the way they care about other priceless, non-utilitarian things like music, family photos, flower gardens, baseball games, beautiful sunsets, and their wedding rings. They cared in such large numbers that the Endangered Species Act was created and it continues with overwhelming popular support.


Q: Why should we care if mussels (or any other species) go extinct?

A: The natural values and the important, but intangible, cultural and historical interest values of the river would both be diminished if any of the river's species were lost. The river would be degraded, a less natural place for angler and recreating family. The role of mussels in the health of the overall aquatic community, including sport fish, is still not understood. The loss of mussels in a river could have adverse effects on the numbers of other desirable species -- or on the increase of undesirable aquatic life forms.



Q: How has operation and maintenance of the navigation channel affected federally listed species and their habitat?

A: Operation and maintenance of the navigation channel project has greatly altered the natural fluvial and geomorphological processes of the UMR through construction of locks and dams, channel regulating works, and dredging/disposal. These processes were responsible for developing the large river ecosystem that provided macro- and microhabitat requirements of many species. The result has been alteration, degradation, and loss of these habitats leading to reduced population numbers of some species.



Q: Can the Service prove the project is jeopardizing the continued existence of the Higgins' eye pearlymussel?

A: The Service cannot conclusively prove jeopardy. We recognize the Mississippi River zebra mussel situation as unique in its newness. Studies on zebra mussel impacts to native mussels in rivers have not progressed to the point of formulas or rules of thumb that we can use. The Service used published scientific information, insofar as pertinent studies exist, but also made heavy use of logic and expert judgment. The best information and expert judgment clearly indicate that, at this time, zebra mussels are in the best Higgins' eye habitats, and are a grave threat to the continued existence of Higgins' eye.


Q: Can the Service prove the project is not jeopardizing the continued existence of the winged mapleleaf mussel?

A: The same lack of well established scientific information pertinent to Higgins' eye exists for the winged mapleleaf mussel. We are using all available information in conjunction with the best expert judgments and best logic we can develop. At this time, zebra mussels are not in the winged mapleleaf habitats. It is possible, but not certain, that zebra mussels will invade and establish in the winged mapleleaf habitats. Furthermore, it is unknown how well zebra mussels would do in winged mapleleaf habitats as they are quite different from areas of high zebra mussel density. Most of all, it is not certain that elimination of the Corps' Upper Mississippi River Navigation operation and maintenance would quickly eliminate the possibility of zebra mussels entering the St. Croix. In sum, the relationship of the project to winged mapleleaf is less clear and more dependent on the occurrence of uncertain chance events than it is to Higgins' eye. The standard of demonstrably likely, quantifiable, project-caused jeopardy level harm to the winged mapleleaf simply does not exist as it does for Higgins' eye. However, the biological opinion does provide for reinitiation of consultation if certain densities of zebra mussels are exceeded.


Q: What can be done to protect the mussels?

A: One promising measure that has been incorporated as a Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA) is to collect mussels and attempt to relocate them to other uninfected watersheds in an attempt to preserve at least a small population to reintroduce into the UMR in case the zebra mussel wipes out native mussels. The real difficulty will be in finding suitable locations which will not be infested by zebra mussels in the future. At this time, candidate areas appear to be in the upper pools above Lake Pepin, the St. Croix River, and UMR tributaries. The zebra mussel invasion presents a formidable challenge in conserving all species of mussels on the UMR, including Higgins' eye pearlymussel and winged mapleleaf.


Q: How does the Service know relocations will work?

A: Careful follow-up study of mussel relocations indicates very good survivorship for years after the relocations. Relocation of mussels is now a standard operation. Other ways of relocating mussels that do not involve relocation of adult mussels also exist. For example, fish carrying mussel larvae can be moved to a new area where the larvae will drop from the transported fish to the bottom of the new water body. This has been done successfully and the Service and CE will be looking into it with other experts.


Q: What will the Service do if the relocations don't work?

A: The Service and Corps of Engineers will reopen the consultation. We will try to determine why the relocation didn't work and fix the problem, if possible. If not, we will seek other actions that might preserve the species. Zebra mussels are under intense scientific study across the country. There is no way to know what options may be available in a few years, but it seems a near certainty that we will know more about fixing the problem than we do today.


Q: What could be done instead of relocations to protect the species?

A: Ideas, such as vessel inspections, public education, and boat cleaning have been explored. Some of the measures are partially helpful, but all lack the comprehensive protection we believe relocations will provide.


Q: Why doesn't the Service recommend shutting down the 9-foot navigation project as a way to save Higgins' eye pearlymussel?

A: The threat to Higgins' eye pearlymussel on the UMR is zebra mussels. Stopping commercial navigation on the UMR in itself will not "cure" the zebra mussel invasion and their effects on Higgins' eye pearlymussel. Zebra mussels are already present in the UMR and have infested areas where Higgins' eye pearlymussels are found. To save the species we need to establish populations of Higgins' eye pearlymussel in areas that will not be infested with zebra mussels in the future.


Q: But isn't commercial navigation the cause of the zebra mussel invasion on the UMR?

A: Commercial navigation is responsible for transporting zebra mussels upstream on the UMR from the Illinois River which was infested by zebra mussel veligers from Lake Michigan. However, the problem isn=t commercial navigation per se C the problem is barges and other equipment that are infested with zebra mussels. The difficulty is no one can say to what extent zebra mussels would decrease if shipping ceased -- or if the decrease would be fast enough to prevent the loss of Higgins' eye in the lower St. Croix and mainstem Mississippi Rivers. 


Pallid Sturgeon

Q: How big of a problem is illegal harvest to the pallid sturgeon?

A: We don't know that illegal harvest is a problem but we suspect it may be. The Service is working with state departments of natural resources and other pallid experts to determine the extent of the illegal harvest problem and measures to curb the problem. The Service is also working with the pallid sturgeon recovery team to determine the best approach to addressing this issue. This effort, however, is outside the bounds of the section 7 process. The section 7 consultation regulations apply only to actions by Federal agencies, such as the Corps' Nine foot Channel Project.


Q: Aren't the Corps' existing and proposed environmental projects already doing enough to help the pallid and the least tern?

A: What the Corps has done (wing dams modification) and what the Corps proposes to do (wing dam modification and side channel restoration) has been and will be beneficial to the pallid sturgeon and least tern. However, those measures were considered in the analysis of future effects of the project, and they are not enough or too speculative due to cost-share funding requirements to offset anticipated detrimental effects.


Least Terns

Q: Why does the Corps have to undertake measures through their O/M program to protect Middle Mississippi River least terns, when least tern numbers throughout its range (on the Lower Mississippi River, especially) are increasing? Isn't there a lot of sandbar habitat?

A: The implication of the question is that the Service should balance, over the life of the Project, anticipated increases in tern numbers in the Lower Mississippi with expected reductions in the Middle Mississippi. The ESA requires under section 7 that the Service determine if a project will: 1) cause jeopardy, i.e. appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery of a listed species, and 2) result in incidental take of the listed species. The Service has determined that this Project will not cause jeopardy to the least tern, but it will result in some incidental take in the form of habitat loss over the project life as proposed by the Corps. It is the Service's opinion that the amount and quality of sandbar habitat on the Middle Mississippi River will be reduced over the project life, which meets the definition of incidental take in the section 7 regulations. Under those same regulations, the Corps must take steps through elements of the project (O/M) , i.e. reasonable and prudent measures, to minimize take that is incidental to the project.


Back to Upper Mississippi River Consultation page


Last updated: February 25, 2016