A federal judge has again blocked construction of a proposed $59 million irrigation dam and associated fish bypass channel on the Yellowstone River in northeastern Montana. The Yellowstone is a major tributary to the Missouri River. U.S. District Judge Brian Morris reinstated his earlier injunction due to the potential threat to the endangered pallid sturgeon, which inhabits portions of the upper Missouri and Yellowstone River. Morris’ ruling came months after he had lifted a previous injunction.
Morris wrote that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ new analysis of the proposed dam and bypass channel likely violates federal environmental laws. Two wildlife groups, the Defenders of Wildlife (DOW) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), successfully sued the Corps and the federal government to block the project two years ago. The groups said there’s no evidence the pallid sturgeon would use the bypass channel. The groups want the government to remove the existing century-old rock and wood dam in the Yellowstone to restore a free-flowing river. The groups believe that action would allow the pallid to successfully spawn in the Yellowstone River.
In previous comments to the Corps, the League also expressed concerns about whether pallids would use the bypass channel as well as the high cost of the project and whether it would help the upper basin pallid population recover.
In his earlier ruling, Judge Morris stated the Corps, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must conduct a more thorough review of the impacts of the proposed dam and fish channel on the sturgeon. DOW and NRDC filed new claims that the more in-depth government review fell short of the requirements of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Judge Morris agreed and noted that the government’s estimate that only 41 percent of the pallids would use the bypass channel did not show what effect those low numbers would have on the overall wild pallid population. Morris also said government officials couldn’t demonstrate that the project would “improve a situation that they concede to be dire.”
The pallid is cut off from their historic spawning grounds by the old wood and rock irrigation dam in the Yellowstone. Biologists estimate the number of wild pallids in the upper Missouri River basin is only about 125 fish. Biologists say the pallid could go extinct if action isn’t taken. Their solution was to build the new dam and a bypass channel.