Combine some fairly strange fish with an odd assortment of groups, and it adds up to an unusual effort to restore the lower Yellowstone River—and bring back the sturgeon, burbot, and carp that struggle to live there.
Back in 2007, in mid-September, Roger Muggli jounced down a ranch road in southeastern Montana to the just-completed fish passage at 12-Mile Dam on the Tongue River. He parked and got out of his truck a little past dawn. The river poured over the diversion dam in that familiar, smooth sheet. Across the way water shunted into the Tongue & Yellowstone Irrigation Canal, which eventually waters Muggli’s farm. He stood at the rail overlooking the dry, boulder-dotted passage that would, in theory, allow about 50 species of warm-water fish to swim past the dam for the first time since 1886.
The upcoming opening ceremony for the passage would include Montana’s governor, Brian Schweitzer, along with a handful of representatives of wildlife agencies and conservation groups, some local supporters, and the backhoe operator. Muggli looked down the dry ditch. He imagined it running with water for the first time, and then gave in to impulse. “What the hell,” he muttered, and began cranking open the headgate.
Water nosed through into the rock-lined passage. Muggli hurried around to walk alongside the first water. A compact, fit man, now in his early 60s, he walked with a bit of an arthritic hitch. An Australian bush hat shaded his weathered face. He watched the water swirl through the precisely set boulders, engineered to provide resting spots for fish and a variety of channels to navigate. He kept pace as it churned around the downstream corner and headed out to the main Tongue, just below the dam.
There he sat on a boulder, alone in the cool morning, with the new waterway running past his feet. He thought about the fish hanging in the turbulent water below the dam, sensing, perhaps, this unexpected flow on the periphery, a passage leading to the upper river, habitat closed off since a decade after Custer’s Last Stand. He hoped the damn thing would work. He chuckled at the irony of his position, being the savior of fish and also the biggest irrigator in the district. Muggli is the third-generation owner of a 1,700-acre farm along the Yellowstone River, east of Miles City, Montana.
Fifty years earlier Muggli had stood over the irrigation ditches on that farm and watched fish—small-mouth bass, walleye, catfish, sturgeon, carp, burbot—wet mud bubbling through their gills, flop and gasp and die. A burning pain seared through him, as if it were he who was suffocating. He ran for a bucket and shoveled in as many fish as he could find before hopping on his bike, hell-bent for the Yellowstone River.
He remembered watching the fish revive in the current, their bodies undulating and gills pulsating in the life-giving flow. Even now he could feel the quiet, unheralded resurrection’s triumph.
That childhood legacy of empathy led him to this project. As a teenager he had dropped window screens over the diversion canal to keep fish out of the ditches. The screens would quickly clog with debris, and his dad would yank them out. Through the ensuing decades Muggli kept at it, hammering away at agency staffers, raising funds, getting people interested, finally donating his time and equipment to the project. Strange, he thought, that a farmer from Miles City, who had never been away from home more than two weeks in his life, would spend half a century obsessed with improving the lot of a bunch of odd-looking prairie fish.
Roger Muggli and the fish passage he championed are a significant piece of a regional push to retain the Yellowstone River’s free-flowing character. The project at 12-Mile Dam on the Tongue was one of the first tangible measures of consequence taken to alleviate threats to fish in a river basin that drains a vast area of eastern Montana, northern Wyoming, and western North Dakota, and that has traditionally been home to dozens of warm-water fish species. Channel catfish, stonecat, river carpsucker, sauger, plains minnow, flathead chub, paddlefish, and two types of sturgeon are among the species that populate the lower Yellowstone’s warm, turbid waters. Muggli’s project also established a precedent for collaborative efforts that bring together environmental groups, farmers, government agencies, and scientists to find common ground.
By 1991 pallid sturgeon populations had dropped to levels that ensured their listing as an endangered species, forcing agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to consider if their actions had harmed the species and requiring them to come up with ways to enable fish to navigate around diversion dams and migrate upstream.
Then, in 1996 and 1997, the Yellowstone River had back-to-back, 100-year floods, which threw some stakeholders along the river corridor into a frenzy of defensive activity. Their first response was extensive bank armoring and levee building. The management chaos that followed the flooding led to the formation of the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council, a coalition of agricultural representatives, conservation groups, and state agencies charged with addressing river management issues. In 1999–2000 co-chair Dave Schwarz had the vision to broaden the council’s scope beyond agricultural interests and open the meetings to environmental groups. In the years since, members of this unlikely task force have slowly come to see their shared interest in fostering a naturally functioning river. That recognition has led to far-reaching management proposals that no one would have predicted consensus on even a few years ago.
“When I went to my first meeting, I thought this was way too big for us,” reports current council chairman Don Youngbauer, a rancher from Forsyth, Montana. “But people stuck with it. It’s amazing to see the progress. We’re trying our best to constructively manage a river. No one has really done that before.”
The centerpiece is a fish ramp project to facilitate the upstream migration of dozens of fish species at Intake Dam, near Glendive, Montana, on the Yellowstone. Muggli’s fish passage played a big part by proving that such projects could succeed. The irrigation canal at Intake will be screened to prevent millions of fish from being pulled out of the river each year. Besides Muggli’s Tongue River passage, breaching or providing passage is taking place at several other dams on the Yellowstone and its major tributaries.
As the longest major free-flowing river in the continental United States, the Yellowstone is mythic. But that claim requires an asterisk. While it is true that no river-stopping, Glen Canyon–like dams plug the flow, the fact is that six river-spanning diversion structures punctuate the Yellowstone between Billings and the confluence with the Missouri. Although these dams don’t create lakes behind them, they check the flow enough to divert water into irrigation canals. Without that water, growing crops—from alfalfa to sugar beets—in eastern Montana would be untenable. In addition, the Bighorn River is plugged by Yellowtail Dam, which has transformed that tributary from sediment-laden, warm-water habitat into a relatively clear, cold blue-ribbon trout stream. Then there are the dams on the Tongue, including diversion structures and a full-on dam near the Wyoming border.
In 1905, when the Intake Diversion Dam was built, the pallid sturgeon’s quirky life cycle wasn’t on anyone’s mind. Intake was, and remains, a primitive structure comprised of wooden cribs filled with boulders, a rock dam that pools the river enough to shunt as much as 1,500 cubic feet per second into a 50-mile canal that irrigates more than 52,000 acres of northeastern Montana and western North Dakota. Within a few years floodwaters and ice jams took out the dam, but it was quickly rebuilt, and it has endured ever since.
At Intake, water froths through the rock barrier, the canal snakes off, river left, and then the depleted flow picks up again downstream. The diversion is enough to provide for irrigation; it’s also enough to stop many fish species from navigating upstream. Ancient species like pallid sturgeon and paddlefish, responding to the timeless urge to spawn, come up as far as Intake, where they are blocked.
“It’s the turbulence, and the sill at the top, that blocks these fish,” says Matt Jaeger, fisheries biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “It isn’t that they aren’t strong swimmers, but these aren’t leaping fish like salmon. They just won’t go up something like this.”
In the case of pallid sturgeon, that blockage imperils their very survival. “There’s a great deal we don’t know about pallid sturgeon,” says George Jordan, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “One of the things we do know, now, is that newly hatched pallids need to drift for 10 to 14 days before they can swim on their own.”
On the lower Yellowstone, because the fish can no longer spawn upstream from Intake, that drift period takes young pallids into the slack water of Lake Sacagawea behind Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. There they die, for reasons biologists don’t completely understand. Upstream on the Missouri, sturgeon are also stopped short by the Fort Peck Dam.
“It could be something about the slack water,” speculates Jaeger, “or vulnerability to predation, but the upshot is that they don’t make it.” The numbers are down to a critical level, some 125 pallids in this reach of the Yellowstone and Missouri, says Jaeger, who has spent more than five years monitoring warm-water species.
The other problem facing fish populations throughout the Yellowstone basin is the one Roger Muggli witnessed as a young boy: their “entrainment” in diverted irrigation water. Data collected between 1996 and 1998 at Intake documented that, depending on a particular year’s water levels, between 382,000 and 809,000 fish were sucked into that single irrigation canal annually. The odds are slim that entrained fish might make it back to the main river in a return channel.
I meet Jaeger and Jordan on a boat ramp near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers on a cool, clear day in early April. One of the bits of knowledge biologists have gleaned about pallid sturgeon is that mature adults collect here around this time of year. Every spring a crew of fisheries folk gathers to net sturgeon to supply breeding stock for several regional hatcheries.
A herd of people in camo waders and government uniforms bustle about, backing aluminum boats into the river, rigging radio telemetry antennae, and loading nets and buckets and metal tubs. A short briefing takes place, then everyone piles aboard.
“It’s like the air horn going off at a walleye derby,” Jaeger jokes as we back away from shore, jockeying with the other boats. Between his graduate work and his job, Jaeger spends much of his professional life on the water. He roars up the Yellowstone, sticking to the deepest channels, driving with practiced confidence. By the time we stop, several miles upriver, I’m glad I wore my thick down coat.
Jaeger cuts speed. He checks the GPS, quickly noting our position, and nods at Jordan, who tosses out the rubber buoy attached to one end of the net. Jaeger backs the boat two-thirds of the way across the river and the buoy on the other end is dropped in. Then we drift, hoping for fish. “Pretty primitive, really,” he admits.
The river tugs us past the mud banks, murmuring toward the confluence. A pheasant calls from the underbrush. Jaeger maneuvers now and then to stretch the net, or pop it loose from some snag.
Eventually we haul it in, hand over hand, while Jaeger idles forward. A good deal of the romance wears off when I see that about two-thirds of a fisheries biologist’s time is spent untangling nets and meticulously picking logs, sticks, and tree stumps out of the mesh. More than once during the morning we have to head to shore to unsnarl the mess.
On the fifth or sixth drift, when I’m wondering why we bothered, Jaeger suddenly perks up. “Start pulling it,” he calls to Jordan. The net slithers over the bow, again full of sticks and tangles, but this time Jaeger comes forward to help, focused and tense. A big log comes in, three feet long. Jordan unhitches it, and throws it over the side. Jaeger keeps hauling. Then another log—but it’s not a log. It’s a fish, a pallid, looming up out of the river. “Yes!” Jaeger crows. “I thought I saw that far buoy bouncing. I just had that good old-time feeling on this one.”
The sturgeon seems surprisingly relaxed. It’s three feet long or better, probably 35 or 40 pounds. Pallid sturgeon can reach 60 to 80 pounds and live 40 years or more. Fossilized remains of sturgeon species, found in the northwest United States, date back 78 million years. Jaeger and Jordan make sure they have hold of the fish, and heft it into the metal tank. I pour buckets of river water to cover it. The pallid rolls and turns in the enclosed space.
Its belly is pure white, and the large mouth has four long whiskers, or barbels, which act something like taste buds to detect the minnows it feeds on. Its back is a smooth, elongated hump, knobby with scutes, which are like armor. Even to a layperson, it looks like a fish designed through the eons to hug the river bottom and cruise like a fluvial hovercraft. The eyes are tiny, gold colored, looking at us. The fish exudes an undeniable presence I can’t pin down, a quality of calm and poise.
Back at the ramp we get in line. Several other crews have also netted pallids, and have weighed and measured each one. A small section of fin is removed for DNA testing, and females have an incision made in their white bellies to check for eggs. All the hatcheries have quotas of males and females to satisfy breeding demands. Most of the fish are known individuals, but several are fitted with tags, numbered, and documented. Fish destined for hatcheries are carried in slings to large tanks on trailers.
“All this is a stop-gap effort,” Jaeger admits. “We have juvenile sturgeon raised in tanks and successfully brought back to the river to avoid the species’ extinction, but that can’t go on forever. The real solution is to get the river working again so sturgeon, and all the other species, can take care of themselves.”
Since the frontier days of the 1800s, humans have sought to harness the Yellowstone and tame natural flooding. What’s clear is that those efforts have compromised the rhythms of the drainage, and endangered the survival of species.
People like Jaeger have understood this for years, but it took the pallid sturgeon’s endangered status to prod government agencies into action and the floods of 1996 and 1997 to get state and local people to the table.
Thanks to a partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation and BOR funds, federal agencies identified Intake as a critical barrier to pallid recovery. Funding has been an obstacle, but in 2007 Congress, over President Bush’s veto, passed legislation authorizing the Army Corps to assist the BOR with funding for fish passage and screening projects on the lower Yellowstone. The agencies proposed a $40 million, 650-foot-wide, 1,600-foot-long rock ramp that will create a gentle slope, averaging less than one degree, with a bottom that will accommodate a range of fish with resting spots and varied water flows. In addition, a set of removable screens will be installed at the mouth of the diversion to keep fish larger than 44 millimeters from going into the irrigation canal.
The final environmental assessment was released to the public in April, and construction on the new headworks for the dam and the removable screens on the irrigation canal started last summer. The completion target for the entire project is spring 2013.
The BOR has begun screening the five pumping stations between Miles City and Glendive with a pilot project near Terry, Montana. Plans are under way to create fish passage at the Cartersville Diversion on the Yellowstone at Forsyth, which would open up hundreds of upriver miles to fish migration and spawning. In the three years since Muggli’s fish passage was officially opened, as many as 700 fish have passed through the monitoring equipment in a single day, and dozens of species have been documented in the upper river.
“The pallid sturgeon get lots of press because of its endangered status,” says Jaeger, “and rightfully so. But they are only one species. There are dozens of warm-water fish species, as well as turtles, birds, and a range of vegetation, all of which will be helped by the things we do to address the pallids.”
The floods that whooshed down the Yellowstone in 1996 and 1997 spurred more local stakeholders, including irrigators, conservation groups, state agencies, and recreation groups, into action. Alarm about loss of property and threats to irrigation supplies prompted agriculture groups to overcome their initial defensive posture, and the plan has evolved to include such wide-ranging measures as controlling invasive Russian olive trees and redefining the boundaries of the river corridor.
People who would never have been in the same room together started meeting regularly. Perhaps the salient study under way is a survey initiated by the Army Corps in 1993 and other stakeholders. It is an unprecedented, overarching approach to river management that attempts to strip away the human alterations to the corridor and glimpse what the pre-settlement river may have looked like. “We’re working with a really good group of folks,” adds Karin Boyd, a geomorphologist conducting a river corridor analysis. “It’s a cross-pollination between fisheries work and landscape geology.”
“The pallid sturgeon is our friend,” says rancher Don Youngbauer. “Even if I haven’t always agreed with a process driven by the Endangered Species Act, what we’re doing on the Yellowstone is the right answer. The Yellowstone is still a pretty healthy, functioning flow. We’re trying to enhance that, while making sure agriculture can still exist.”
“Ten years ago you never would have heard an irrigator say that sturgeon are our friend,” laughs Sue Camp, a natural resource specialist with the BOR. “That’s a real statement about this process.”
“At Intake we got irrigators, townspeople, agency people involved,” remembers Youngbauer. “It didn’t take long to realize that people wanted mostly the same things. In the end, that fish ramp will improve things for everyone. It’ll be a better irrigation structure. It may require less maintenance. And it will be a huge improvement for the fish and the river.”
Back at his premature test of the fish passage that September dawn, Roger Muggli shook himself free of his memories. He stood up and stretched. Then he started back up against the flow, taking his time, studying the way the rocks and current interacted.
At the top he leaned over the railing, the sun well up, warming his back. A great blue heron cruised upriver. “Eating my fish,” Muggli grumbled, when the gray bird landed in some shallows.
As he reached over to close the headgate, he thought he saw something, just the ghost of a shadow. He peered down. There, just below the small, concrete apron, the elusive shape of a fish, and another—three of them altogether. They nosed up to the concrete, tentative and cautious, and hung there, hesitating. Muggli felt their tension. Then, as if on a signal, they flicked up toward the open gate. Fast as thought, they whisked through and were gone, into the murky frontier.
Bozeman, Montana–based Alan Kesselheim and his family have twice canoed the entire Yellowstone River, from the boundary of Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the Missouri.
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