It erected dams, built dikes, lined the river’s edge, and piled rock into structures called “wing dams” that jut into the river, directing the current to make it self-scouring, leaving a 9 foot-deep channel in the middle.
Then, in the early 2000s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that Corps management was jeopardizing the existence of three species living in the river ― two threatened birds, the interior least tern and piping plover, and the endangered pallid sturgeon.
In 2005, the government started the Missouri River Recovery Program, a partnership with the Geological Survey, the Fish and Wildlife Service and multiple state agencies, to understand the species and restore their habitats. Two years later, Congress authorized the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee, a group of representatives from agriculture, navigation, conservation, tribal and state interests, to provide recommendations to the Corps.
Practical results came quickly for the tern and plover. Scientists were able to count birds, nests and eggs. They determined that the birds’ success depended on their access to habitat: Missouri River sandbars.
“That’s extremely powerful. And that’s what the science should be doing,” said USGS hydrologist Robert Jacobson, who works on the program.
But they knew less about the sturgeon. Sturgeon are among the oldest fish species on earth, evolving some 70 million years ago. They have a ridged back and shovel nose and can grow to almost 6 feet, weigh 85 pounds and live to 100. Much of the program’s first decade of research investigated their basic biology. How often do they spawn? Where in the river do they live? How do they grow?