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Changing Course: A Greener Corps?
By Mary Losure
July 4, 2000
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The Fish and Wildlife Service wants the Corps to relax some of its control over the rivers, so in some places, they can run more freely. See larger image.
For most of its long history of building dams and straightening rivers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hasn't had to worry much about endangered species. But that's changing.

Last spring, the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service released a sweeping document known as a "jeopardy opinion." It says the Corps' operations on the Upper Mississippi River threaten two endangered species; including one called the pallid sturgeon.

Fish and Wildlife is expected to issue another document soon, saying Corps' operations threaten the pallid sturgeon on the Missouri River as well. Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service wants the Corps to make some changes in how it runs the nation's largest river system. But change for the Corps does not come easy.

ONCE, THE MISSISSIPPI AND THE MISSOURI were free-flowing rivers. They wove through an ever-changing landscape of sloughs and sandbars and backwaters. An ancient, homely fish known as the pallid sturgeon thrived there.

But when the Army Corps of Engineers converted the Mississippi and the lower Missouri into navigation highways for barge traffic, the habitat, which pallid sturgeon depended on, was nearly wiped out. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service put it on the endangered species list in 1990.

Now, the service has told the Corps that it needs to start recreating some of the habitat destroyed by the navigation system, or risk running afoul of the Endangered Species Act.

"I think they're open to look at working with us to do some good things for the pallid sturgeon," says John Blankenship of the Fish and Wildlife region that includes the upper Mississippi.

In essence, the Fish and Wildlife Service wants the Corps to relax some of its control over the rivers, so in some places, they can run more freely.

Jim Milligan is a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist on the Missouri River. He's heading toward a side channel of slow water and sandbars. The river carved it when it escaped from its banks during the great floods of 1993. The Fish and Wildlife Service bought the land, and put it into the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. It looks very different from the mainstem of the river, which the Corps keeps confined to a narrow navigation corridor.

The refuge looks more like the Missouri River some 200 years ago. "Lewis and Clark probably could have seen something that looked like this; after the river had shifted, like cut off a bend happened here, with banks caving in, sandbars developing," observes Mulligan.

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This small, free-flowing side channel already has more species of fish than the main channel, and attracts more birds as well. And last summer Milligan and other biologists made a stunning discovery here: tiny pallid sturgeon. It was the first evidence of pallid sturgeon spawning in the wild in the lower Missouri in at least half a century.

"The real exciting news is that we found them in a habitat restoration site," Mulligan says. "Some people will say it was blind luck. I think it says we're doing something right here."

It seems clear that habitat restoration on the river can work. The question now is how far the Army Corps of Engineers is willing to go to promote it.

Letting the river wander and spread takes water from the main channel, and that could hurt navigation. Historically, the Corps has always placed a higher value on navigation than wildlife. Big Muddy Refuge Manager Tom Bell says shifting those priorities is like reversing the course of a battleship, but he says it's starting to happen.

"I don't think ten years ago a project like this side channel here would ever been considered," Bells says. "It would have been, 'Oh no, that's a threat to navigation. Close it right now.' It would have been treated as an emergency. They'd have been out here working overtime, just shutting it off."

The Fish and Wildlife Service has given the Corps six months to draw up a plan to begin recreating pallid sturgeon habitat on the upper Mississippi.

Major General Phillip Anderson, commander of the Corp's Mississippi Valley division, says he thinks the Corps can create the needed habitat by making relatively minor changes to its existing control structures; to let more water flow outside the main navigation channel.

"We're now becoming a product of our continuing history now, where ecosystem restoration projects have a growing importance," says Anderson. "When I look to the future, I see that becoming a larger and larger component of what the Corps will do to be responsive to the nation."

But the evidence on whether the Corps is actually getting greener varies wildly, depending on where in the country you look. In Florida and Louisiana, for example, the Corps has major projects underway to restore the Everglades and coastal wetlands. But in Arkansas, the Corps wants to put a barge corridor through the White River National Wildlife Refuge.

Now on the Missouri and the Mississippi, the Fish and Wildlife Service is pressuring the Corps to give less consideration to barges, and more to wildlife. Its response may indicate whether on those rivers, it's the new Corps, or the old.

Next: One Man and a Wheelbarrow