Pallid Sturgeon

The slower the current of the Missouri River, the better a baby pallid sturgeon can swim and find areas to grow over the course of 5 to 15 years.

The pallid sturgeon eats by swimming on its belly along the Missouri and lower Mississippi Rivers. It has been doing this since the dinosaurs walked the Earth.

Part of the fish’s northern territory was taken to create dams and lakes, which better control runoff so people can live along the Missouri River. The management benefits farmers — fast and narrow, but that’s contrary to what the fish has preferred since prehistoric times — slow and wide.

Joe Bonneau is chief of the Threatened and Endangered Species Section for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It’s a big river, and it’s muddy and the fish are hard to find,” Bonneau said. “We really need to know how many pallid sturgeon are out there, which requires you to monitor a little differently — requires you to catch fish, mark them, put them back in the river, and then re-catch them. And you just keep doing that.”

A female will reach maturity between 10 and 15 years of age. That’s when she swims up the Missouri River to lay her eggs, which depending on her size can be between 15,000 and 170,000 eggs. A male then fertilizes the eggs, and they hatch a week or two later. The larvae float down the river and may take their first swim when the river gets fat between Kansas City and St. Louis.

“The problem is we don’t find little guys,” Kasey Whiteman said. “We’ve found 11 of them in (the past) five years.”

Whiteman is with the Missouri Department of Conservation, and he will be looking for baby pallid sturgeon this summer. He’s the supervisor for the Missouri River field station, which works in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a number of other state agencies to grow the pallid sturgeon population.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the fish to the endangered species list in 1990, which means if you catch a pallid sturgeon you can take a picture with it to show your friends, but you have to throw it back in the river. (Whiteman would also appreciate seeing it; Kasey.Whiteman@mdc.mo.gov).

The fish can live between 50 and 100 years, growing to over 6 feet and weighing up to 80 pounds.

The loss and change of habitat are a couple of the reasons to the decline in numbers, but pollution could also be a cause.

Wayne Nelson-Stastny is the pallid sturgeon recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He spoke to News-Press NOW about the parameters of the endangered species list.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is a self-sustaining, genetically diverse population of 5,000 adult pallid sturgeon being realized for two generations (20-30 years).

Two birds; the least tern and piping plover are also endangered. However, their recovery may be easier to chart, because eggs can be counted on dry land.

Politicians in Washington D.C. have been critical of the pallid sturgeon’s recovery, because it’s difficult to chart whether the efforts made will result in it coming off the endangered species list. However, when it was placed on the list in 1990, the available research was limited.

U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) co-sponsored a bill in May to remove fish and wildlife from the authorized purposes of the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System. The bill was introduced by U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), and companion legislation was introduced in the house by U.S. Representative Sam Graves (R-MO).

In a press release Blunt said, “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers need to get its priorities straight, and that means putting flood control and navigation first.”

Flood management of the Missouri River is the top priority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a year of flooding, like the one we are currently experiencing.

The Corps has seven priorities along the river; (in no particular order) navigation, irrigation, water quality, hydroelectric power, water supply, recreation, and fish and wildlife.

Missouri Basin River Hydrologist Kevin Low forecasted in April that the Missouri River would be “vulnerable” to flooding well into the summer.