Rider Would Overrule Missouri River Management

WASHINGTON, DC, January 24, 2003 (ENS) - Senator Kit Bond has introduced a measure that would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to move nests of endangered birds that are threatened by high flows of the Missouri River.

Bond, a Missouri Republican, has proposed an amendment to the Omnibus Appropriations Bill now before the U.S. Senate that would exempt the Missouri River from certain Endangered Species Act Requirements. The measure would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to flood or move the nests of endangered birds nesting downstream from Gavins Point dam near Sioux City, Iowa to ensure sufficient river flows for the handful of commercial barges plying the lower Missouri River.

The rider also directs the Corps to move the nests and baby chicks of the endangered interior least tern and the threatened piping plover off river sandbars into a captive rearing facility, a scheme that in the past has killed many of the hatchlings.

"Moving these struggling birds to a brick building is a death sentence," said Chad Smith, director of American Rivers' Missouri River field office. "Common sense dictates that what troubled species on the Missouri really need is a healthy river system, not a healthy dose of legislative riders."

American Rivers is part of a coalition of conservation groups taking legal action to reform operations at six dams on the Missouri River and its tributaries.

The Corps now releases water from its dams on a schedule intended to maximize the length of the commercial shipping season for a barge industry on the lower third of the river. These unnatural flows have driven three species - the pallid sturgeon, piping plover, and interior least tern - to the brink of extinction, the groups charge.

The flow scheduled also undercuts the economic benefits associated with "nearly one million recreation based days of hunting, fishing, sightseeing and boating annually," on the upper Missouri River, according to one Corps study.

Last month, the Corps requested re-initiation of formal consultation with the USFWS on the current Master Water Control Manual for the Missouri River and the Annual Operating Plan for 2003. The Corps said the consultation, which allows the agencies to exchange information on the impacts of proposed operations, is needed to explore ways to protect endangered species while maintaining flood control and shipping on the river.

Senator Bond's amendment would sidestep these consultations and force the USFWS to give the Corps permission to relocate or flood plover and tern nests in order to maintain river flows of more than 30,000 cubic feet per second during the summer.

"Without dam reforms, these species will creep closer to extinction and dozens of additional species will need federal protection," said Scott Faber, water specialist with Environmental Defense, a national conservation organization based in New York.

"But Senator Bond's rider would go further," Faber said, "and undermine navigation on the Mississippi River during an unprecedented drought, and devastate reservoir recreation in Montana and the Dakotas."