Pallid sturgeon, © Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS

A Living Dinosaur

It survived for millennia – until humans dammed up its home waters

Imagine paddling along in a kayak on the Missouri River when suddenly a dinosaur swims by below, almost as long as your paddle! That’s not a scene from the upcoming Jurassic World – it was once a reality in thousands of river miles of the Missouri and Mississippi River basins. The ancient pallid sturgeon, whose ancestors date from the time of the dinosaurs, once lived from Great Falls, Montana to New Orleans, Louisiana. But you’d be fortunate to ever see one today; the last wild-born pallid sturgeon are nearing extinction. After having survived 78 million years, they are now close to joining their fossilized ancestors. The situation for the pallid sturgeon is so dire, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has resorted to releasing hatchery raised sturgeon, a form of short-term emergency life support.

The appropriately nicknamed “living dinosaur” has silver bony plates instead of scales, can live longer than 50 years, can reach 6 feet long, and can weigh in at about 80 pounds. Their closest living relative, the shovelnose sturgeon, is one tenth their size at a meager eight pounds. The pallid sturgeon is native to the murky Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries, where its long, flat, toothless snout is the perfect shape to gobble up smaller fish and other prey it finds on the river floor. They thrive along the bottoms of large sediment-laden rivers, where the natural warm flows create various channels and sand bars.

For generations, pallid sturgeon swam freely in their home rivers. But as humans built dams for flood control, irrigation, navigation, and other uses during the early and mid 1900s, the rivers’ natural sediment, flow and temperature were disrupted, destroying much of the pallid sturgeon’s habitat and blocking the fish from swimming up and downstream. It turns out that pallid sturgeon larvae-as baby sturgeon are called- also need hundreds of miles of free flowing, oxygen-rich waters to survive. When dams break up these long reaches of river, the young larvae (which cannot swim independently) drift into the backwaters of reservoirs, where they sink to the bottom of oxygen-deprived stagnant water and suffocate. A new scientific study released a few weeks ago showed how the dams are at the root of the problem for the pallid sturgeon’s survival.

The largest identified wild population of pallid sturgeon left in the wild is in Montana and western North Dakota, in the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. But this population has dwindled to fewer than 125, almost all nearing the end of their lifespans. There has been no evidence of a pallid sturgeon born in the wild surviving to adulthood for several decades. Time is of the essence –the pallid sturgeon cannot afford to continue losing their young to these hazardous dams. The way these dams prevent the pallid sturgeon from successfully reproducing is the riparian equivalent to continuously chopping down trees with eagle nests – the species just can’t stand up to that level of destruction.

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Sub-Adult pallid sturgeon, Pallid sturgeon, © Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS

Two Dams, Two Problems for the Pallid

The Intake Diversion Dam on the Yellowstone River (a major tributary of the upper Missouri River), is a 12-foot-high timber and rock barrier that blocks the pallid sturgeon from reaching 165 miles of prime spawning habitat. Unable to get where they need to go, in most years the fish are forced to reproduce in the lower Yellowstone River below Intake Dam instead. But if they spawn there, the young larvae are too close to the next downstream reservoir, Lake Sakakawea, where they are likely to suffocate, starve, or get eaten by predators. Unless the adult fish are able to spawn farther up the Yellowstone, the young are doomed.

FWS urged the Bureau of Reclamation to consider the negative impacts the dam has on pallid sturgeon 23 years ago, but despite the clear problem, the Bureau has never created a way for the fish to bypass the dam and access the critical spawning habitat upstream. Every few years when runoff is high, the sturgeon are able to navigate on their own through a natural sidechannel around the dam. Last spring, five pallid sturgeon used this natural passageway around the dam to swim upstream – and one may have successfully spawned. Now the Bureau and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claim to have a plan to improve passage around the dam, but it involves building a higher concrete dam that will best serve irrigation, and includes a fish passage as a secondary goal. It will also block the one channel that sturgeon are known to have used in the past. Many experts are concerned that the proposed “fish ladder” may not work for sturgeon, who are notoriously reluctant to use them at all.

Another longstanding problem comes in the form of Fort Peck Dam on the mainstem Missouri River. In this case, the Corps is ignoring its legal obligation to modify the dam’s operations while pallid sturgeon struggle to survive. The dam releases water that’s far too cold and clear, which destroys the pallid sturgeon’s spawning and rearing habitat. The Corps has refused to modify these flows or increase water temperatures to improve the pallid sturgeon’s chances of reproducing in the wild – something any species must be able to do in order to survive.

To protect this living dinosaur fish from extinction, Defenders filed suit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). These agencies are responsible for finding solutions to help the species survive, even if it means changing how the dams operate. Instead, these two dams on the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers are causing the decline of the largest known population of wild endangered pallid sturgeon.

If the dams continue their “business as usual” operations, it will likely be impossible for the upper Missouri River basin population of pallid sturgeon to spawn and reproduce, keeping the species on the brink of extinction. Yet there are solutions and improvements the agencies can make to change the problems that have been perpetuated for over 20 years. By taking the issue to court, we hope to spur the agencies into action, and give pallid sturgeon the right of way they deserve in their home rivers. This species survived one of the largest mass extinctions the planet has ever seen. Humans have no right to snuff it out now.

Defenders in the Courts

Learn more about how Defenders’ legal and policy experts work to protect imperiled species.

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19 Responses to “A Living Dinosaur”

  1. Graham and Sandy Baker

    Reduce the reproductive capacity of the ‘human’ species drastically!

    • Janus Baez-Ward

      Right on!!! Human overpopulation is the root-cause of all the problems plaguing the earth at this time: air pollution; pollution of the oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams; extinction of all manner of life; depletion of all natural resources; etc., etc., etc. Until the numbers of humans is severely curtailed, the damage they cause cannot be reduced. They will continue until they cause their own extinction.

    • Marshall Anthoine

      It is people like you that give me hope for my generation and future generations!

  2. Sharon Anderson

    I believe the pallid sturgeon deserves the right to life. I am all for whatever it takes to get proper agencies to do what is conceivable to ensure preservation of this wondrous survivor. Give them the support necessary to move the situation to their best chance for survival and healthy habitat for spawning.

  3. Paula Simmons

    This is intolerable! Something must be done, quickly! Thank you for taking them to court. It’s sad that is what it takes to forces these agencies to do the right thing.

  4. Yashwant S Shishodia

    I hope this desperate fight is won by conservationists and the sturgeon survive and thrive in the future.

  5. Joyce Buchanan

    Why do that not understand that it’s important that these species survive, because if they don’t then mankind will be extinct. We must do what is necessary for their survival. Please keep up the good work.

  6. Charles Semler

    I have tried and tried to open the article To Bee or not To Bee. Every time I try to open it , this article about the ancient dinosaur opens . I don’t understand.

  7. Yosef

    Have pallid sturgeons never been disturbed by beaver dams in the same way?!

  8. N B

    I am fed up with the so call “Fish and Wildlife” in D.C. What are they doing, waiting for a paycheck? for the past 2 years I read, see horror stories about animals, like my “wolves” etc…suffering because a so call working for the people are doing zero, null, nada, rien!. This makes me so upset (to say the least). You have constantly to be on your toe to vote against those ones who don’t care about the nature around us. Destroying our wild animals etc, is unbalancing nature and our environment. What will be left in the next 20- 30 years?? stuffed animals in a zoo?? I cannot give money. But my will is always here to fight for them.

  9. Marilee Urban

    Are these dams necessary? The early 1900’s saw a lot of dam building, but in the present day many of these dams have outlived their usefulness. There are organizations actively (and successfully) encouraging a serious look at the possibility of removing unnecessary dams. This may be an answer for at least some of the dams hindering pallid sturgeon spawning and sustainability.

  10. Patricia Matejcek

    What is the purpose of these dams and what is their economic benefit? These are points vulnerable to attack as are their age and safety. Weighed against the lost public benefits to which citizens are entitled of recreational access (boating, kayaking, floating) and fishing for full complement of species and those economic losses, perhaps the “benefits” of the dams will prove less attractive/compelling. What would be the downside(s) of removing one of both of the dams? Fish come from the Creator; the DOD/ACOE hasn’t the authority to extirpate them.

  11. Ken Martin

    The purpose is to irrigate 64,000 acres of prime agricultural land to supply a portion of food for the nation which is going to double in the next 50 years due to more and more babies and illegals coming across the border.

    This particular ground raises the barley for beer and sugar to put in the candy bars of the fat environmentalists with nothing else to do with their hands and mouths but eat, talk, drink and make life miserable for the hard working farmers in our country.

  12. Doris V.

    I agree with the people who have written about human over-population. We need to convince all people to limit the size of their families for the good of all of the world’s creatures.

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