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Defenders of Wildlife and Natural Resources Defense Council Support Biologists’ Recommendations to Remove Intake Dam on the Yellowstone River to Save Pallid Sturgeon


AUGUST 12, 2016

Media Contacts:

Catalina Tresky, Defenders of Wildlife: ctresky@defenders.org or (202) 772-0253

Margie Kelly, Natural Resources Defense Council: mkelly@nrdc.org or (312) 651-7935


Defenders of Wildlife and Natural Resources Defense Council Support Biologists’ Recommendations to Remove Intake Dam on the Yellowstone River to Save Pallid Sturgeon


DENVER – Today, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) voiced their support for the Upper Basin Pallid Sturgeon Workgroup's comments on the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) on revising operations of the Intake Diversion Dam on the Yellowstone River.

The government-sponsored workgroup, composed of biologists from state and federal agencies, characterized their own agencies’ claim that a proposed two-mile long artificial channel would allow endangered pallid sturgeon to bypass a proposed larger dam as “unfounded” and “purely theoretical.” They determined that “the most beneficial alternative for pallid sturgeon would involve removing the existing barrier to provide full-river passage.”

The following are statements from Defenders of Wildlife and NRDC:

Steve Forrest, Rockies and Plains senior representative for Defenders of Wildlife:

"The Upper Basin Pallid Sturgeon Workgroup made a clear determination that removing Intake Dam is the best chance for pallid sturgeon to recover, as reported by the Associated Press. It is now even more obvious that the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to build a larger dam and artificial bypass channel is a gamble that may well drive the largest last wild population of pallid sturgeon to extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must not allow it to proceed. Even their own biologists agree. By removing Intake Diversion Dam and replacing it with irrigation pumps – a water delivery system used on irrigation projects across the nation – we can restore the lower Yellowstone River, help recover the endangered pallid sturgeon and continue to provide water to irrigators. This is a true win-win solution. It’s time the agencies listen to their own scientists and remove the dam.”

Matt Skoglund, Director of NRDC’s Northern Rockies office in Bozeman, Montana:

“As these state and federal biologists have plainly pointed out, the most prudent and effective course of action here is to remove the Intake Dam, open up the Yellowstone River, and still provide the irrigators with all of the water they need through pumps and other measures. To spend tens of millions of dollars on an ‘unfounded’ and ‘purely theoretical’ plan makes absolutely no sense, and it will be detrimental for all stakeholders in the long run.”


The Upper Basin Pallid Sturgeon Workgroup includes representatives of state and federal wildlife agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) and the Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation). The group is charged with preservation and recovery of the endangered pallid sturgeon as part of the pallid sturgeon recovery team.

The pallid sturgeon – an ancient “dinosaur fish” that dates back 78 million years – is in imminent danger of extinction in the wild due to a century of dam building. The last stronghold of about 125 wild pallid sturgeon live in the upper Missouri River watershed. None have successfully produced young in decades.

The primary cause of reproductive failure is due to dams and other human modifications of the river. Pallid sturgeon are blocked from upstream migration, and young larval sturgeon are trapped by dams. According to the latest science, the stretches of free-flowing river between dams are not adequate to provide the young larval sturgeon the time needed to mature before they are able to swim on their own. As a result, they suffocate in the oxygen-poor dead zones of reservoirs downstream. According to experts such as the Upper Basin Pallid Sturgeon Workgroup and the Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, removing Intake Diversion Dam – a 107-year old rock structure on the Yellowstone River - provides the best possible chance for all sturgeon migrating upstream to pass Intake and the best chance for larvae to survive their downstream journey.

In May, the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) presented their proposed alternatives to provide fish passage at Intake, as required under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), in a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). The publication of the DEIS opened a public comment period on the agencies’ proposed alternatives through July 28. Defenders and NRDC submitted detailed comments calling for a free-flowing river to give the pallid sturgeon a fighting chance at reproducing successfully in the wild.

The Corps and Reclamation want to replace the Intake Diversion Dam with a larger, more permanent dam and artificial side channel. Conservation groups -- including Defenders of Wildlife, NRDC, Trout Unlimited, American Rivers -- and the scientific organization Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, have challenged the agencies’ analysis in their DEIS, arguing that their proposed plan is both less certain and less cost effective at providing sturgeon passage than removing the dam and replacing it with pumps. Conservationists and biologists successfully blocked the agencies’ plan in court last year. In February 2015, Defenders of Wildlife and NRDC filed a lawsuit charging that Reclamation, the Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) failed to comply with the ESA in operating Fort Peck and Intake dams.

There is much uncertainty surrounding the proposed artificial bypass channel. The Corps and Reclamation admit in their own draft environmental impact statement that they are not confident this bypass will work. In section 4, on page 162, they write: “There are still many uncertainties over whether a majority of pallid sturgeon would actually pass through the bypass channel as there are no other examples of similar natural-type channels designed for non-jumping benthic fish.”

Now, the federal agencies are analyzing comments and deliberating what their final proposal will be on the project at Intake. A final environmental impact statement or a record of decision (ROD) on their preferred alternative will be produced in the coming months.  The FWS is obligated to review the ROD and determine whether it will jeopardize the sturgeon and what additional measures are necessary to ensure recovery of the sturgeon as a result of this project. Its opinion could be published as early as next month.


Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit www.defenders.org. For the latest news from Defenders, follow us at @DefendersNews

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.