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Ancient fish, modern problem: How the pallid sturgeon could be a warning for the Missouri River

A close-up image of a fish's head as it swims through the water. The fish is beige and has a long snout, whiskers and small eyes.
Tiffany Johanson
Nebraska Public Media
An endangered pallid sturgeon swims in an aquarium at the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery in Yankton, South Dakota. Some say recovery efforts for the pallids and other animals on the Missouri River could also help protect the floodplain.

The pallid sturgeons outlasted dinosaurs, but human changes to the Missouri River nearly wiped out the prehistoric fish. Some experts think the fish’s struggle could signal larger problems on the Big Muddy, especially as climate change accelerates.

Every day in the spring and fall when water temperatures are right, a team of scientists meet at a boat ramp off the Platte River in Nebraska. Waders on, they board an airboat and head to the fishing lines they baited with worms the night before.

A graduate student leans forward on the boat, reaching for a line and reeling it in.

“Looks like there’s a fish or two on,” said Mark Pegg, a fisheries ecologist and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Might not be the right fish.”

 Three people sit on a boat in a river. One person leans over the side of the boat, gently placing a fish back into the river.
Tiffany Johanson
Nebraska Public Media
Two graduate students and their professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln record information about fish in the Platte River in Nebraska. The project aims to learn about how the lower Platte River contributes to pallid sturgeon habitat and reproduction.

Plenty of catfish, carp and shovelnose sturgeons took the bait, but that’s not what they’re hoping to find swimming in this tributary of the Missouri River.

They’re looking for the endangered pallid sturgeon, a funny-looking fish with a long snout and humped back, all covered in sandy scales.

Since the age of the dinosaurs, pallid sturgeon have swum in what became the Missouri River. They survived mass extinctions and multiple ice ages.

But populations have plummeted over the last 90 years, as construction to protect against flooding and increase navigability in the Missouri River have impacted the fish’s ability to survive.

In 1933, engineers with the Army Corps started building dams, pushing in river beds and removing miles of slow, calm side streams. It deepened the river and sped up the water’s pace to create a navigation channel for the shipping industry.

 A black and white photo shows a small bridge over a narrow stretch of water. A much larger body of water is to the right of the bridge.
Photo courtesy of Gerald Mestl
This 1955 photo of the bridge connecting Burt County, Nebraska and Monona County, Iowa at Decatur, Nebraska shows one part of channelization on the Missouri River. The water on the right side of the photograph would be engineered to flow under the bridge.

The projects largely eliminated the fish’s habitat, and Wayne Nelson-Stastny with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said soon it was rare to catch a young pallid sturgeon.

“What they were capturing was older fish, never anything in the small, young type pallids,” he said. “And so there was a major concern about ‘Are we going to have this population go extinct?’”

It took millions of years of evolution for pallids to reach their efficient form, uniquely suited to the Missouri River, said Nelson-Stastny.

“If you were going to design a fish in an engineering program to adapt to the Missouri River, where you can’t see but you can smell, you can hear, and you have to be able to handle the currents, a pallid sturgeon is what you would design,” he said.

 A man wearing a blue button-down shirt sits and talks in front of aquarium tanks.
Tiffany Johanson
Nebraska Public Media
Wayne Nelson-Stastny speaks during an interview at the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery aquarium. “When I think about a pallid sturgeon, I think about a fish that needs a working river because it is so in tune, evolved with a dynamic river.”

Biologists were worried about what it meant if this fish — so in tune with the river — was struggling.

The pallid sturgeon joined the endangered species list in 1990, and the Corps of Engineers adopted an action plan to rehabilitate the species.

“The Corps is required to address its impacts on the pallid sturgeon,” said Joe Bonneau, a program manager with the agency. “That includes a hatchery and habitat restoration projects on the lower river.”

Recovery efforts

Chris Hooley is a fish biologist at the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery in Yankton, South Dakota, where they raise baby pallids from eggs and release them into the river to keep the population going. They also track the fish to learn more about its habits and what it needs to survive in the river.

“This serves as a genetic backup for the pallid sturgeon in the upper Missouri River,” he said. “Field crews go out onto the river, catch the fish and bring them to the hatchery, and we’ll raise their offspring before we release them and tag them for tracking.”

 Close-up image of a man’s hands holding a small fish, with a long snout, humped back, small eyes and long tail.
Tiffany Johanson
Nebraska Public Media
A biologist at the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery holds a baby pallid sturgeon. The hatchery program has breathed new life into the pallid sturgeon population by raising the fish from eggs, releasing them into the river and tracking them to learn about their habits.

Eventually, biologists want the fish to reproduce naturally and grow in the Missouri, without their help. To do that, scientists think baby pallids need side streams of slow, shallow waters to grow up without getting swept up in a fast current – or a catfish’s mouth.

The Corps of Engineers has re-created those habitats by purchasing land from willing sellers. But changing stretches of the river to benefit endangered species hasn’t been popular. It came to a head after the region saw devastating floods in 2011 and 2019. Farmers blamed the habitat restoration projects for their damaged property.

“I've been in meetings where busloads of people show up and say, ‘My farm is not your laboratory,’” Nelson-Stastny said.

 Aerial photo of a landscape destroyed by flooding. A bridge has collapsed and pieces of broken road are scattered throughout the ground.
Drone footage
Nebraska Public Media
Severe floods in the Midwest and Great Plains fueled debate about programs to rehabilitate the pallid sturgeon population. Farmers have sued the Corps of Engineers, alleging that the efforts had contributed to flooding on their land between 2007-2014.

But to Gerald Mestl, who worked in Nebraska Game and Parks for decades, the pallid sturgeon has mistakenly become a scapegoat for larger problems on the river.

“The ecosystem is in trouble on the Missouri River. It's not the pallid sturgeon is in trouble,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the message is lost. The river’s ecosystem supports a lot more than just the pallid sturgeon.”

Bigger problems on the Missouri

Mestl’s research found that narrowing the river for the navigation industry increased flood heights and frequencies. He said undoing those projects and widening the river could restore habitat for animals like the pallid sturgeon and make more room for flood years.

“Yes, it will cost a lot of money,” Mestl said. “But we will have a system that will meet our needs today and for a long way in the future.”

 A man wearing a brown blazer and red button-down shirt sits in a laboratory room with microscopes and jars. He looks off-camera to the left.
Tiffany Johanson
Nebraska Public Media
Gerald Mestl sits during an interview in a lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. To Mestl, the pallid sturgeon has mistakenly become a scapegoat for larger issues on the Missouri River.

A future that will likely include more flooding as intense storms occur more often in the region.

Rezaul Mahmood, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has studied how storms in the Missouri River basin have changed over the last 70 years.

His research showed extreme precipitation events have gotten worse and more frequent over the years, which signals that increased flooding is likely in the Midwest and Great Plains.

“Our engineered systems are not designed to deal with this,” Mahmood said. “We designed the system based on historical records. But when nature itself changes course, it becomes much more difficult.”

Adapting the river for the future climate reality may require a new balancing act between environment, animals and the people that live along the river and depend on it for farming, navigation, recreation and hydropower.

Luckily, Bonneau said stakeholders already have a blueprint for that teamwork, through the case study of the pallid sturgeon.

“That’s one thing pallid sturgeon are teaching us,” he said. “There are solutions that can address stakeholder needs and the purposes of the river. It takes a lot of effort, good science and teamwork, but we’ve done it on the Missouri River, because of the pallid sturgeon.”

This story is part of NOVA’s “Climate Across America” initiative with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

It’s being distributed by Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest that reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Elizabeth Rembert reports on agriculture out of Nebraska for Harvest Public Media.
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