Missouri River Operation and Management Issues

Ralph Morgenweck


March 27th, 2002

Good Afternoon, my name is Ralph Morgenweck and I am the Regional Director for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service=s Mountain-Prairie Region. I am here today to testify on behalf of the Service concerning our role in the current and future management of the Missouri River.

When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, it reflected America=s concern about the decline of species around the world. Under the ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have primary authority for oversight and protection of our nation=s rarest fish, wildlife, and plants. The Missouri River is home to three of these species: the endangered pallid sturgeon and least tern, and the threatened piping plover. The decline of these species tells us that the current river management plan does not benefit native fish and wildlife, and that steps are necessary to restore the river's ecological functions. The operation of a river, to include its full ecological functions, not only provides fish and wildlife habitat, but also supports and diversifies local economies.

In passing the ESA, Congress committed the Federal Government to preventing extinctions by requiring Federal agencies to use their authorities to conserve endangered and threatened species. Under the authority of the ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Service helps other Federal agencies ensure their actions do not jeopardize the continued existence of these species. For the last 12 years our Bureau has worked with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to modernize the management of the Missouri River to help stabilize and begin to increase and recover these species. This approach was described in a Biological Opinion, which was issued by the Service in November 2000.

The Biological Opinion looks at the river as a system, outlines the status of these rare species and the effects of current operations on these listed species, and recommends a reasonable and prudent alternative to the current management that will not jeopardize their continued existence. We know that the Missouri River and its native wildlife evolved under seasonal flow fluctuations. Higher flows in the spring and early summer, fed by melting snow and rain, provided the cues for many fish species, including the pallid sturgeon, to start spawning. These flows also created new sandbars and cleared existing sandbars of vegetation. The spring flows were followed by declining flows during the late summer and early fall. These flows exposed the clean sandbars which were used as nesting sites by birds, including the least tern and piping plover. Slow, shallow water associated with these sandbars also provided important habitat for young fish. Our main goals in recommending changes to the management of the Missouri River system are to create and maintain sandbars as habitat for birds, and to recreate a more natural spring release of water from Fort Peck and Gavin=s Point Dams in order to provide important reproductive cues to sturgeon. The reasonable and prudent alternative from the Biological Opinion provides a way to achieve these goals. We will continue to work with the Corps to evaluate the final preferred alternative when it is presented in the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Management of a complex river such as the Missouri River has never been a simple issue. The Missouri River is the longest river in the United States. It flows 2,565 miles from its source in the Rocky Mountains to join the Mississippi River, forming the world=s third longest river system. It drains 1/6 of the nation, encompassing 529,350 square miles. The basin is home to about 10 million people in 10 states and 28 Native American Tribes. Opinion polls indicate that most Americans care deeply about our nation=s natural resources; but they also appreciate the economic engines driven by these resources. It is a difficult balancing act to serve the needs of communities while protecting the survival of imperiled species.

Change is needed but it is not always easy to embrace. The Service's Biological Opinion is based on the best available science, including more than 500 scientific references. In addition, the Service and Corps sought out six respected scientists ) Abig river specialists@ ) who confirmed the need to address flow management as well as habitat restoration in order to responsibly fulfill our consultation role. Furthermore, the Missouri River Natural Resources Committee, a group comprised of state experts on Missouri River management, has endorsed the science in the Service's Biological Opinion. Significantly, the recently released report from the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, confirmed the need to immediately restore the River's physical processes, which have been lost as a result of current operation, if we are to conserve and protect the native species dependent on those processes.

The National Research Council also endorsed another of the cornerstones from our Biological Opinion: adaptive management. There is a growing understanding of the need to create a management regime that will be much more flexible and responsive to new scientific information. An adaptive management approach allows the government, and our partners, to achieve this result, and is an essential component of the Service's involvement in Missouri River issues.

Compliance with the Endangered Species Act in protecting and conserving Missouri River native wildlife is what brought us all to the table. The Missouri River is of aesthetic, ecological, educational, commercial, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation, and its people, and its natural heritage, as well as its role in human history, are part of our national heritage. It is a tremendous river, one with a significant and revered heritage in North Dakota and in the Nation. Human influence has greatly altered the river, and impacted native wildlife. We support efforts to modernize and restore health to the river for the benefit of all communities, for wildlife and for people.

In closing, the Service supports the identified goal of the revised Master Manual - to manage the river to serve the contemporary needs of the Missouri River Basin. These needs include taking steps to ensure that the threatened and endangered species are protected, while maintaining other socioeconomic benefits provided by the operation of the Missouri River dams. The Service is confident that the operational changes identified in the Biological Opinion, in addition to subsequent discussions with the Corps, will ensure that these species continue to be a part of the Missouri River's living wildlife legacy.

This concludes my prepared remarks. I would be pleased to respond to any questions.