Missouri River Recovery Program efforts continue to improve watershed, identify conservation goals
In 1989 after the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (Corp) began revising their master water control manual, which coincided with the listing of two birds and a fish on the Missouri River, plans were put into place to begin looking at recovery efforts along the river.
“When Fish and Wildlife Service listed the pallid sturgeon, least tern and piping plover, they released two biological opinions explaining what was going to be necessary to recover the species,” says Brian Lovett of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts. “As part of the master plan, recovery efforts were rolled in, and the Corp committed to the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC).”
The effort continues today, as committee members encourage conservation of the Missouri River.
“The Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP) is an effort to replace lost habitat and avoid a finding of jeopardy to threatened and endangered species resulting from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects on the Missouri River,” says the Corp of Engineers on the MRRP website.
MRRIC is comprised of 70 sovereign and stakeholder representatives along the entirety of the Missouri River watershed. The members fit within 16 categories ranging from agriculture and flood control to recreation and waterways industries.
“We make decisions based on consensus,” says Lovett. “As can be imagined, our process is very slow because it is consensus based.”
Lovett adds that the MRRIC also has a strong integrated science panel.
“The science panel has really impressed me,” he continues. “They do literature and science reviews of the research and management actions proposed by the Corp and Fish and Wildlife Service and provide valuable feedback.”
The committee also works to determine whether actions will be beneficial to the Missouri River recovery efforts and makes adaptive management recommendations.
“The original biological opinions that are done are usually guess work based on available science,” he says. “Adaptive management allows the fine tuning of the plan as knowledge and information are gained.”
Lovett also mentions that one of the interesting aspects of the Missouri River Recovery Program is the variety of interests located throughout the watershed.
“There are very different concerns and interests from one end of the river to the other,” he explains. “Our part of the watershed may be interested in agriculture and recreation and another may be concerned with shipping and municipal water supplies.”
The lower reaches of the Missouri River Watershed, he continues also have the political and economic influence.
“The Missouri River Ecosystem Restoration Plan (MRERP) was to be the long term, large scale strategy for the watershed,” Lovett notes. “Some members didn’t like where things were headed with MRERP, so the funding was removed from the budget.”
Lovett says he had concerns with MRERP, as well, particularly with efforts made to extend MRRP’s programs to the river’s tributaries and expand the list of species to be protected, which could have affected Wyoming.
“However, I did think there was value in MRERP,” he adds. “MRERP looked at a focus on natural resources and the socio-economic and cultural impacts of those.”
“The group also started measurements of how the river existed today and what people wish it would look like,” Lovett continues. “I think that there was concern that the economic and cultural uses would be over shadowed by ambitious restoration goals.”
“From a conservation district standpoint, I thought that there were things that could be practical if we started working on tributaries and if funding was available,” he explains. “For example, conservation districts could restore Cottonwood groves and undertake similar efforts.”
“The efforts on the Missouri River continue, slowly but surely,” Lovett says. “They are making decisions.”
However, Lovett notes that the Army Corp of Engineers has their own timelines in the Water Resources Development Act of 2007.
“I have a feeling that the Corp moves forward without the MRRIC at some point and puts practices into place,” he says.
At the same time, he believes that the MRRIC committee will continue to function until their mission is accomplished because of the importance of the Missouri River.
“The challenge for this committee is to figure out how to address endangered species needs and these other concerns and still make everyone happy.”
Because two-thirds of Wyoming falls within the Missouri River Watershed, Lovett says that the programs implemented by MRRIC and in the MRRP could have impacts in Wyoming.
“Everything but the southwest part of the state is in the Missouri River watershed,” says Lovett.
Lovett continues, “If the programs in the MRRP expanded into the tributaries of the Missouri River, Wyoming could be involved.”
Currently, Lovett also adds that there is ongoing debate about whether Wyoming should stay involved on the committee.
“Right now, there isn’t a lot that affects us,” he says, “but it is nice to have someone who is keeping an eye on what is going on.”
Lovett remains engaged in the process to stay apprised of any issues that may arise.
“I keep my ear to the ground, but I don’t think there are a lot of impacts that we will see in Wyoming,” he comments.
Many habitat creation projects have been implemented along the river. The Corp’s recovery plan commits to creating 20 to 30 acres of shallow water habitat, including chutes, side channels and backwaters, per river mile by 2020.
The plan also promises to create significant emergent sandbar habitat. The floods of 2011 resulted in 4,400 acres of sandbar habitat being created. Current efforts are focused on maintaining this naturally developed habitat in place of constructing it.
“Young sturgeon can’t swim after they hatch. They have a larvae phase,” Brian Lovett of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts explains. “They drift in the current for 10 days to two weeks, and if the water stops moving, they settle to the bottom of the river, are covered in sediment and die.”
Addressing this drift phase will be very complex given the factors affecting flow and the length of the unimpeded stretches of river.