Mountain-Prairie Region

Missouri River News and Information

Guest Commentary
Charles Scott
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Field Supervisor
Columbia, Missouri

Recent statements have been made about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serviceís proposed changes to Missouri River management, including unsubstantiated statements that these recommendations are not based on sound science and will not help the endangered and threatened species.

The recommendations in the Serviceís biological opinion to minimize the effects of current river operations on the pallid sturgeon, least tern, and piping plover are based on the best scientific information currently available. These recommendations are similar to recommendations from the Missouri River Natural Resource Committee, an organization of state fish and wildlife officials from the Missouri River basin. The Service also incorporated important biological information received from Missouri River basin states, Tribes, and others in the biological opinion. The scientific underpinning of the biological opinion is based on the most recent developments in big river ecology. It includes life history requirements of big river species, like the pallid sturgeon, that require variable river levels to meet their basic life needs (i.e., reproduction, survival).

The Service has been criticized by some for going too far with its recommendations, while others say we have not gone far enough. The recommendations in the biological opinion focus on one specific problem with the Missouri River, preventing the future extinction of three imperiled species. Based on the best scientific information currently available, we believe implementation of these actions will prevent the extinction of the pallid sturgeon, least tern, and piping plover. Considering other uses of the river and the flexibility and adaptability of our recommendations we believe these changes are both reasonable and balanced.

Missouri River scientists and resource managers agree that the River is biologically in trouble. We all acknowledge there is a problem - the disagreement is over how to fix it. During the last 100 years, the form and function of the river have been significantly altered. Conversion of the river for certain uses has affected other uses. The largest effects to the basin have come at the expense of the rich fish and wildlife legacy that the river once supported. For example, this river once sustained thousands of jobs in the commercial fishing industry. Now only a handful remain. Restoration of more natural flows and habitat could mean a return of lost jobs and the creation of new jobs.

Change is the most difficult part of restoring important aspects of the Missouri Riverís biological integrity. Revising 50 years of flow management on the Missouri River will not come without serious debate and action. The first stage of this change involves recognition that we must do a better job of balancing costs and benefits. Minor tradeoffs in some current uses may be necessary to restore some of the long lost environmental benefits of the river. Opponents defend the status quo approach to management. But this river is in trouble, and status quo will not remove us from the situation that led to the listing of endangered species and the demise of a healthy river.

In developing and implementing actions regarding the operation of the Missouri River for endangered fish and wildlife, the involved Federal agencies and states must look at the issues and effects from a basinwide perspective. This broader view of the riverís problems allows a greater possibility of options and solutions, but it also opens agencies to criticism from those holding limited views of the river.

Some have criticized the Service for its insistence that hydrological restoration be part of the solution instead of placing more emphasis on habitat restoration. These critics wrongly believe that habitat restoration, similar to what is working on the Mississippi River, is all that is needed to prevent the extinction of these endangered species on the Missouri River. Habitat restoration is an integral component of the biological opinion as reflected by the recommendation to restore approximately 20 percent of the lost aquatic habitat.

However, the Mississippi River has a more natural hydrograph (the rise and fall of a normal river) that supports fish and wildlife needs and maintains essential habitat. In contrast, impoundment and regulation of the Missouri River flows for multiple (and often conflicting) purposes has left little semblance of natural flows, so habitat restoration alone will not sustain endangered wildlife.

We are committed to working with the citizens of the basin to understand these issues and implement the changes necessary to restore the Missouri River to its full economic and environmental potential.

Charles Scott is the Field Supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Missouri Ecological Services Field Office in Columbia, Missouri. A primary responsibility of this field office is the conservation of plant and animal species protected by the Endangered Species Act in Missouri.

Return to the Missouri River Home Page
Return to the FWS Mountain-Prairie Region Home Page