Wildlife float reveals new face of Big Muddy

Sunday, September 30, 2007 | 9:17 p.m. CDT; updated 7:41 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Participants of the 16-mile Big Muddy Wildlife Float pull their canoes and kayaks into the Missouri River at the start of the float Saturday.

HUNTSDALE — Gliding hawks might know the changing face of the Missouri River better than some Missourians do.

But this weekend more than 85 people dipped canoes and kayaks into the river to get a first-hand look.

Big Muddy Facts

By the numbers:

4.5 million: Missourians who live near the Missouri River. 11,000: Acres of land in the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. 371: Tons of trash recovered by Missouri River Relief since 2001. 86: Number of participants in the Big Muddy Wildlife Float.

By the date:

1819 — The first steamboat chugs up the Missouri River. 1830s — The U.S. government begins allocating money to alter the Missouri River. 1987 — U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins mitigation projects. 1993 — Flooding along Missouri and Mississippi rivers. 1994 — Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is created. 2001 — Overton Bottoms side chute is constructed.

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The Big Muddy Wildlife Float was organized by the Missouri River Communities Network, a nonprofit organization that works to generate interest in the river and issues that surround it.

Since the 1980s, the federal government has been shifting the course of its river management strategies. Millions of federal dollars have been channeled into projects aimed at gently undoing some of the massive shipping and channeling feats accomplished by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the past century.

In the interest of making the river safe for navigation, government money has poured into the Big Muddy since the 1830s, said John Skelton, a field representative for the Corps.

The river’s use as a navigation path for shipping had previously trumped the interests of wildlife and recreation. But now government agencies are trying to restore some of the river’s historic habitats.

“We have to tell our engineers: ‘Thanks for doing such a good job (of channelizing the river). Now, could you go back and do a little bit less of a good job?’” said Aaron DeLonay, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

One project on display at the float was the 6-year-old chute at Overton Bottoms, built to create an increasingly rare shallow-water habitat.

This weekend, boaters veered right, off of the main channel just below mile marker 187, and into the mouth of the narrow diversion. The cut sides revealed layers of flood-dumped sand. A carpet of young willows, just taking root, indicated the newness of the steep banks.

Many of the biggest changes on the Missouri River, including the chute at Overton Bottoms, are happening in the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The refuge’s projects aim to create habitats for migratory birds and rare fish, especially the endangered Pallid Sturgeon.

Mitigation projects can be slow going, and refuge manager Tom Bell admits to occasional frustration.

“But then I look back to five years ago, and it’s a lot better than it was then,” he said.

Brad Hargrave, organizer of the event, said he hopes that the simple act of getting people out on the river will help Missourians better understand the challenges involved in river management.

The float gave a unique look at “the conservation work done in the area that often goes unseen,” Hargrave said.

But the day also gave many members of the public their first river’s-eye view — of the roaring underbelly of the Interstate 70 bridge; a bald eagle riding the afternoon gusts; and the trees, on the cusp of autumn, clinging to limestone atop Manitou Bluffs.

“As much as (the river) is part of our past, I think it’s a big part of our future, too,” Rocheport Mayor Brett Dufur said.

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