Mountain-Prairie Region

Missouri River News and Information

Guest Commentary:

Ralph O. Morgenweck
Mountain-Prairie Regional Director
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Denver, Colorado

Lewis and Clark would not recognize many portions of the mighty Missouri River today. Back then, settlers complained that the rich organic water of the Mighty Mo was "too thick to drink and too thin to plow." Over the intervening 200 years, generations of settlers have spent considerable energy trying to manage the river and carve out a safe and prosperous place to live. Through creation of a system of Federal reservoirs and navigation improvements, we have created inexpensive and dependable hydropower, flood control, irrigation systems, and navigation opportunities for the benefit of the public. These and other operational goals are balanced and implemented under the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ Missouri River Master Water Manual. This Manual, last revised in the 1960s, is now being considered for revisions in the near future.

Unfortunately, harnessing the Missouri River came at a cost to many fish and wildlife species that once thrived in a free-flowing river. The pallid sturgeon, least tern, and piping plover are symbolic of that decline in environmental diversity and quality; each of these species is now listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened or endangered. The challenge now facing the Corps of Engineers and others involved in managing the Missouri River is to create a proper balance in the Master Manual among existing uses which include fish and wildlife and recreation along with the traditionally targeted uses of flood control, navigation, and hydropower. It’s not a draconian choice between people and the environment, as some would try to portray this challenge; we must, by law and common sense, accommodate both.

The Service and the Corps have been working together and with others for the last several years to discuss how the system can be managed. The result of these discussions will be a document written by the Service called a biological opinion which spells out the actions considered necessary to avoid jeopardizing the continued existence of the endangered species. A draft biological opinion was submitted to the Corps on July 31 and will be used to further discussions concerning the recommended actions. The final biological opinion is expected by late September. The citizens of the basin will have ample opportunity to comment on these recommendations and influence decision-making prior to implementation of any perceived controversial action.

The least tern, piping plover and pallid sturgeon have depended upon the river for thousands of years, yet our current actions have pushed them to the brink of extinction. The essential elements of the recommendations will focus on the fact that these three species, and others, evolved in conjunction with the ecology of a natural prairie river. Unfortunately for these species, many portions of the river are operated to maintain a system with little resemblance to a natural, free-flowing river. All is not doom and gloom, however, on the Missouri River. Enough places still exist within the river system to allow these natural habitats to be restored and maintained, thus preventing the extinction of the river’s natural heritage. The goal is to help the endangered species without unduly compromising other uses of the river.

Let me be clear, returning the Missouri River to its former, uncontrolled condition is neither necessary to protect the threatened and endangered species nor reasonable in light of the many human uses now dependent upon a carefully managed river. Our recommended changes in river management will keep all the dams in place, help conserve fish and wildlife, and allow farmers and river communities to continue to receive the benefits of flood protection, navigation, and hydropower when the basin’s citizens need them most.

The goal of the Service is to ensure the actions proposed to prevent the extinction of native species are reasonable, based on sound science, and are within the authority of the Corps to implement. Thus, the criticism that we will turn back the clock to the days of massive floods and droughts is ill-founded. The goal is also to produce a set of milestones that will be used to ensure progress is taking place toward conservation of threatened and endangered species. I encourage everyone to log on to our website at to view additional information about the ESA, this ongoing consultation, and endangered species of the Missouri River.

Dr. Morgenweck is the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Regional Director for the states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming

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