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The Missouri River

At the junction of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers at Three Forks begins the Missouri River, flowing 2,464 miles to its mouth at St. Louis, Missouri. The three forks have been the goal of many travelers, including Lewis and Clark when they passed through looking for a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Indians and trappers moved through, stopping only briefly to harvest game. In 1541 Spain's Coronado first heard of it as a mighty river of the north. De Soto's discovery of the Mississippi in 1545 convinced him there was a northwest passage to the Pacific. In 1673 French Canadians Marquette and Joliet located the junction of the Missouri and the Mississippi, although the Indians knew it was there all along. By the 1740s the De la Verendrye brothers arrived near the head of the Missouri and camped up Sixteen Mile Creek.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers has managed both the Missouri and Columbia Rivers for barge traffic through a network of dams. Planned for 20 million tons per year, cargo peaked at 3,300,000 tons in 1977 and has diminished to 1,500,000 tons since. In contrast, recreation is predicted to keep expanding and a dramatic increase in tourism is expected during the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's epic struggle to cross the continent by rivers most of the distance.

Missouri River with lack of vegetation
This photo of the Missouri was taken in 1999. Note lack of riparian vegetation and absence of willow and cottonwood.

Fort Peck Dam was built during the dust-bowl depression of the 1930s for flood control, irrigation and barge traffic. Below the dam, the flow goes down abnormally in the spring and back up in the summer. The river that once occupied its floodplain, wide and slow with braided channels, is now narrow and fast. River life dwindled as it lost its natural connections to the floodplain. The decline of river wildlife is an indicator that something is drastically wrong. The Endangered pallid sturgeon, a bottom feeder, may soon become extinct because of higher summer flows that hurt the young. High summer flows wash away the nests of the least turn and cause the absence of plant-studded sandbars needed for breeding and raising young. Fort Peck Reservoir will drop to a level of 2,205 ft. above sea level by December, 2003, a historic low. A previous low was 2,209 in April, 1991.

The Missouri River is failing to flow, according to studies by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Academy of Sciences. They say the river is in serious decline and action must be taken to reverse the damage and restore some semblance of the river's natural flow out of Fort Peck Dam if the pallid sturgeon, least tern and piping plover are to be saved from extinction. Their listing under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is an indication of the river's mismanagement. The Corps and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have been wrangling for 15 years for a strategy to operate a series of dams in the Missouri River in such a way that their destructive impact on wildlife, birds and fish will be relieved.

Scientists are recommending a change in the river's flow pattern and have submitted a biological opinion to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on how to change dam operations to more reflect the natural flow. Naturally the first high water would be in April when rain and melting snow from the prairies surge down the river and when sturgeon, paddle fish and other species spawn. The second pulse of high water would be in early June when snow melt from the mountains flows into tributaries and to the Missouri River. The summer months would be drier and the river level drops, allowing the least terns and piping plovers to feed their young on sandbars. With the fall rains, the river would rise slightly again.

Paddle Fish - Joe Gutkoski, Missouri River
April 10, 1988, Joe Gutkoski caught a 56 lb. male Paddlefish below Peggy's Bottom on Missouri River above Fort Peck Reservoir.

Scientists say that land use policies must be formulated so the river can use its floodplains to mitigate the effects of flooding and drought, and the flow regulated to allow survival of the species that live in and from the river. Of the 67 fish species native to the river, 51 are now listed as rare, uncommon or decreasing in numbers. The ESA states "no federal agency action can harm endangered plants or animals." If the Corps accepts adaptive management and re-establishes seasonal flexible flows, it will increase natural habitat and ecological recovery. More natural flows can be restored without serious impact to modern day uses such as flood control and irrigation and the fast disappearing barge traffic.

The Corps is now writing a new "Master Manual" intended to be released in May 2002. If it advocates new adaptive management, it would be an important leap forward into the 21st century for water resource management. Based on the most up-to-date scientific, social and economic information, it is now up to the Corps to decide whether the river that led Lewis and Clark to the Northwest Passage will continue to decline or start on the path to ecological recovery.

MRA has submitted recommendations to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha to:

1. Adopt the flexible flow alternative GP2020 in their EIS.

2. Reconnect the river with its floodplain, creating shallow backwater habitats for spawning fish and allowing sediments to deposit sand bars for nesting of shore birds.

3. Do a comprehensive, independent economic analysis of the entire river.

Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument

The Federal Antiquities Act of 1906 gave President Clinton authority to designate 375,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands into the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument to protect the historic Native American pictographs, pioneer homesteads, Lewis and Clark camps, fur trade, steamboat and scientific interests. Two hundred years earlier President Thomas Jefferson sat down with Captain Meriwether Lewis and planned the Northwest Passage expedition to keep the British from claiming more Northwest lands. The 149-mile Missouri Breaks still retain much of their natural look and Lewis and Clark would immediately recognize today what they actually saw 200 years ago, despite the grazed-out look and lack of riparian vegetation and cottonwood reproduction. As the Bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's legendary voyage approaches in 2003-2006, we have the responsibility to restore this major portion of their route. Also, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail crosses the river at Cow Island, marking the journey of the Nez Perce tribe to Canada, while hounded by the U.S. Cavalry. With the 200-year anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, many people will visit Montana to travel up the Missouri River and follow in the footsteps of the Corps of Discovery.

Cattle on the Missouri
This photo was taken in October of 1999. Note absence of riparian vegetation with sagebrush invading dried out areas. Also notice that there is no willow or cottonwood.

Domestic livestock grazing takes place on public lands from Fort Benton downstream to the North Dakota state line. Hot season grazing during July, August and September is the reason for lack of riparian vegetation and regeneration of willow and cottonwood. The BLM began a study in 1995 which showed that many more seedlings survive in areas that are not grazed. Ranchers are reluctant to keep their stock away from the river which can be seen standing in the river in the middle of October. Regeneration is absent while riverbanks are broken down by cattle. The BLM is now trying to work with the problems in the river corridor. ~

Also see these MRA web pages:

A species older than dinosaurs living in the Missouri and lower Yellowstone's roiling waters

Pallid Sturgeon Of The Missouri
If nothing is done to replenish their numbers, they will become extinct.

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