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Know the West

Back from the brink

  A prehistoric fish that once thrived throughout the Missouri and Mississippi rivers is teetering on the brink of extinction. Only 250 wild pallid sturgeons remain in the upper Missouri River of Montana and North Dakota, and they are growing old. Each of these fish is between 40 and 50 years old.

"Most of those are probably going to die out in the next decade or so," says Al Sapa of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota.

The pallid sturgeon is a peculiar-looking fish with a skin of bony plates; it can weigh as much as 80 pounds. Its habitat of silty backwater has largely disappeared behind six mainstem dams built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Missouri River. The Corps also lined many miles of free-flowing river stretches with rock riprap, which wiped out the beaches and sandbars that provide backwater habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is focusing its pallid sturgeon recovery efforts on the Yellowstone River, a tributary that still flows free through mostly natural, braided channels. Earlier this month, the agency released more than 1,000 year-old, captive-bred fish into the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers in North Dakota and Montana. A Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan aims to restore the fish by the year 2040.

In addition to fish stocking, Sapa says, the sturgeons will be helped by restoring river habitat and by releasing water from dams to recreate high spring flows. The new habitat and more natural river flows, could improve life for other species as well, including the sturgeon chub, sicklefin chub and paddlefish. Two bird species, the endangered least tern and the threatened piping plover, nest on sandbars that are often flooded by unnatural water releases from the dams.

*Dustin Solberg