COLUMBIA — It wasn't until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began damming the upper Missouri River that the pallid sturgeon caught the public's eye.

The dams interfered with the sturgeon's normal life cycle of traveling up and down the Missouri River. Rather than meandering the 700 miles of an open river, concentrations of the fish were trapped in upriver reservoirs.

Biologists began to learn more about the history of the ancient species, which can live up to 100 years and traces its lineage back to the dinosaurs 70 million years ago.

The more biologists learned, the more they worried. Damming and engineering of the Missouri River wiped out vital spawning grounds, migration routes and habitats for pallid sturgeon. In 1990, the species was listed as endangered.

Since 2004, the Corps has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to re-engineer the lower Missouri River in an attempt to recover the population. From stocking the river with pallid sturgeon spawned in hatcheries to re-engineering the river to restore habitat and spawning grounds, the collaborative effort has cost millions.

The most recent restoration effort aims to transform a sandbar known as Airplane Island, a popular recreation spot on the river across from Katfish Katy's in Huntsdale, into a habitat for young pallid sturgeon.

Jane Ledwin, a biologist with of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Columbia, said the efforts are worth the time and expense.

"This species is a great indicator of the general health of the river," Ledwin said.

Because of the complexity of ecological systems it can be difficult to recognize the value of an individual species, she said.

"It’s important for us to be very humble when we approach these big systems and species," Ledwin said. "If we keep the places and processes in place as much as possible, all of those interactions between thousands of species will be able to continue to take place."

Changing the nature of Airplane Island

Airplane Island, or Searcy's Bend, will be one of 10 locations on the Missouri River between Kansas City and St. Louis that the Corps will use as a project site. 

Construction began in Oct. 2016 and will be completed by summer 2017. The project was funded by a portion of the $17 million allotted to the Corps from the Missouri River Recovery Program in fiscal 2016.

Mike Chapman, chief of the river engineering section for the Kansas City district of the Corps, anticipates the project will divide Airplane Island into two or three smaller sandbars. Water will flow between the current sandbar and the high bank.

He also said that all of the project sites will use public land, and the changes will have no impact on private property.

Chapman said although bank erosion is always a concern to private property, "there will be no adverse impact since the land around the project is all public land."

The Corps is facing a lawsuit filed by a group of farmers, individuals, and business owners who assert that the Corps' efforts to create new habitat on the Missouri River has contributed to flooding, erosion and higher ground water tables.

Chapman thinks the dike extensions and re-engineering will make the main navigation channel easier for boats and barges to navigate.

Efforts to recover the population are required by law because pallid sturgeon are listed as an endangered species and the construction of dams and other engineering of the river by the Corps affects their continued survival.

"By complying with the Endangered Species Act, we can continue to operate the system," Chapman said. "If we don’t comply, we can’t operate those main stem dams and that river system. We would have to change the way we operate."

What's different this time?

The Corps has seen limited success since its pallid sturgeon restoration efforts began in 2004.

Seven pallid sturgeon were caught in 2014 that were naturally reproduced in the Missouri River said Todd Gemeinhardt, a fish biologist for the Missouri branch of the Corps. "Older fish have been caught as well."

When starting out in 2004, the Corps had few biologists on staff and little equipment. Biologists were still trying to understand the needs and habits of the elusive species. Although Corps engineers created shallow, slow-moving water for young sturgeon, they failed to account for an additional phase in their life cycle.

"After the sturgeon spawn, the eggs hatch and the young sturgeon drift for a period of time in the river," Gemeinhardt said. After nine to 11 days, they need a way to exit the deep and fast-moving portion of the river and take refuge in another habitat of shallow, slow water, rife with food and shelter. There, he said, they grow and rear.

Chapman said the journey can be compared to a car traveling down Interstate 70. What he and his team are working to create with this latest project is the on and off ramps for pallid sturgeon to get from the deep, fast-moving current, to the shallow, slower-moving water.

By manipulating the depth and velocity of the river at different points using dikes, the team can create a current that carries the pallid sturgeon into the slow, shallow water that are vital for them to survive into adulthood.

"We’ve learned a lot since 2004," Chapman said. "We’re using that information to change our approach to managing the Missouri River."

Supervising editor is  John Schneller.

  • Erin McKinstry is an Enterprise reporter for the Columbia Missourian. Reach her by email at or by phone at 314-800-4764.

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