Beneath the swirling waters of the Missouri River, underwater microphones eavesdropped on fish.
A boat of biologists drifted downstream, listening for the crisp beeps that would indicate a pallid sturgeon, tagged with an electronic tracker, nearby. “He’s on the left side — we’ve got him!” said biologist Ryan Langer.
Langer was on a 250-mile trip to track sturgeon populations, one component of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiative to study and restore the habitat of threatened and endangered species on the Missouri River after more than a century of dike-, dam- and bank-building. The trip takes three days, and biologists like Langer have made it every month for years.
But now the very existence of the program, the only one tasked by law with protecting such species, is threatened. Under fire by farmers and industry and transportation interests, unprotected by politicians, and overmatched by competing budget concerns, the Missouri River Recovery Program has been cut to the quick, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
The Corps, which funds and runs the initiative, has slowly chopped the program’s annual budget from more than $80 million a decade ago to just over $8 million next year.
“I don’t know how you can withstand a cut like that and maintain the integrity of the program,” said Michael Mac, retired director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Environmental Research Center in Columbia, Missouri, and a former chairman of the program’s guidance committee.
Corps officials said the reduced funding was due simply to competing budget priorities. “Many worthwhile efforts across the nation must compete for available federal resources,” Vance F. Stewart III, a top Army Civil Works budget official, said in a statement.
But there are also clear competing interests on the river.
The Missouri is relied on by a diverse group of users ― gravel producers, barge companies, sport anglers, farmers and municipal water districts, among others. The Corps manages these varied uses, and it’s a delicate balancing act: Farmers want flood prevention. Sand and gravel producers want to dredge the bottom. Barges need high water levels and a navigable channel.
Still, scientists estimate that up to 4,600 square miles of habitat have disappeared along the Missouri.
This year, the conservation organization American Rivers ranked the lower Missouri as the second most endangered river in the country.
The Missouri River was once wide and slow, meandering through a broad flood plain of back channels and wetlands.
But at the turn of the 20th century, agencies began to control its flow ― from its headwater in Montana to its confluence with the Mississippi River, just north of St. Louis. Under the Flood Control Act of 1944, the Corps began massive public works projects to control flooding.
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?
Program scientists devised a plan to figure it out: They would catch sturgeon, whisk them to the banks, cut them open and insert a finger-sized tracking device. Underwater microphones, called hydrophones, could detect the chips up to a quarter-mile away. And each tracker emitted a pattern specific to its sturgeon.
Researchers also installed sensors along the river banks to log sturgeon as they passed, even detecting depth and body temperature, providing clues to habitat, migration, spawning and more.
Then, in 2011, record floods swept down the Missouri. Levees broke. Farms and properties were covered in water.
In March of 2014, Ideker Farms of Holt County, Missouri, and 371 other plaintiffs from six states filed suit. They alleged that flooding along the river since 2007 was due to Corps mismanagement, and sought claims under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, asserting their property was taken without compensation.
In March 2018, a federal judge ruled that the 2011 floods were uncontrollable, and not the Corps’ responsibility. But other floods, the judge ruled, were. Damages were later estimated at $300 million. Both parties have appealed.
“If the United States of America, the citizens of the United States, want to chase after the pallid sturgeon and the least tern and spend millions of dollars, that’s certainly their right to do that,” farmer Roger Ideker told the Post-Dispatch last month. “But it’s not their right to take our land and flood it for that purpose.”
In 2019, Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley introduced a bill that would have removed fish and wildlife preservation as a Corps’ priority on the Missouri, and made flood control the agency’s top job. Co-sponsors included Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, plus Sens. Deb Fischer from Nebraska, and Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst from Iowa.
In December last year, over 60 plaintiffs filed a second lawsuit against the Corps, using the initial Ideker suit as precedent.
Over the same period, program funding was in a tailspin. The 2014 presidential budget requested $70 million. By 2017, the budget line was $18 million, and in 2021 — even as the Corps’ Civil Works budget soared — the Missouri River program line-item fell to $9.7 million.
In some years the program received supplemental funds, often earmarked for specific purposes, like the $20 million awarded in 2021 to repair habitat structures damaged by flooding.
And researchers began to understand species’ needs better, which reduced costs, said Joe Bonneau, manager of the Missouri River program.
Still, he said the program needs $30 million per year. Not $8 million.
The Corps had been eking by, year-to-year, drawing on its bank account.
But now that money’s gone, too. And the Corps doesn’t expect a supplement this year.
The Missouri River program’s progress has been slow but marked. The tern was removed from the threatened and endangered species list earlier this year, though it will still be tracked for five years. Piping plover populations have shown signs of a rebound.
The sturgeon has been harder to understand. Researchers have discovered spawning in the river, and have found high survival rates in adults. But it appears juvenile fish have struggled.
“What they’ve done with characterizing habitat, understanding the life history of the species, and even some of the genetic work,” said Mac, the former USGS scientist and Missouri River program chair. “We’re talking about some cutting-edge science here.”
He can’t remember a time when an incoming Democratic administration cut a conservation program’s funding.
Steven Kopecky, a chief in the Corps’ Northwest Division, believes an emphasis has been placed on other river needs.
“Across the board, the previous administration was focused on navigation and flood risk management,” Kopecky said. Even if a new presidential administration has different priorities, there can be a lag in adjusting, he said.
The Missouri River also lacks a coordinated advocacy campaign, said Eileen Shader, director of river restoration for American Rivers. “I think the Missouri River recovery program sort of suffers from a lack of a champion,” she said.
All of this leaves Bonneau, the program’s manager, with a projected budget one-tenth the size it was just more than a decade ago.
“We’re working with our science partners to figure out, ‘How do we handle a budget year like this?’” he said.
For instance, the Corps has built two bespoke habitats for young sturgeon on the Missouri, and had 10 more planned. The structures, rocky piles that stretch into the river, slow current for the younglings.
But last August, the Corps authored a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service saying the Corps would be unable to build more this year. It doesn’t have enough money.
And scientists say the Missouri River recovery work has implications beyond the tern, plover and sturgeon.
Restoring habitat is a step toward restoring the Missouri River ecosystem.
“This program is too darn valuable,” Mac said, “to let it just wither and die on the vine.”