When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark dragged and poled their boats up the Missouri River in 1804, they found a river teeming with fish and wildlife. The Missouri River that the Lewis and Clark expedition saw was a wide, braided river in the stretch that now forms the eastern border of Nebraska. Meandering across a wide valley, the river had a mix of backwaters and sloughs, sandbars, and deeper, faster-moving channels that together made the river an enormously productive fishery.
This rich and varied aquatic habitat was bounded by wetlands and bottomland forest that provided habitat on land. Flocks of birds large enough to darken the sky followed the river’s path. For thousands of years, the Missouri River provided habitat for fish and wildlife, which in turn supported the Native American tribes who lived along the river.
Later, a large fishing industry grew up along the Missouri, supporting hundreds of commercial fishermen well into the early 1900’s. But soon, huge dams were built upstream and more than a century’s worth of work to channelize the river and remove snags and other habitat caused fish populations to collapse, taking the commercial fishing industry with it.
The Missouri River has been the victim of two centuries of work to turn this once wide, braided river into a barge canal, to allow a handful of barges to haul goods that could move by truck or railroad. Small dams on tributaries block fish spawning runs. Productive habitat along the Lower Platte faces intense development pressure from Omaha and Lincoln.
The Missouri also faces pollution problems. High levels of fecal coliform bacteria, Dieldrin (once used as an insecticide), and PCBs (once used in electric transformers and as a coolant) have been found in the Missouri River and some key tributaries like Papillion Creek.
Managing the Missouri
The United States Army Corps of Engineers built and operates some of the largest dams in the world on the Missouri River, including Fort Peck (Montana), Garrison (North Dakota), Oahe, Big Bend and Fort Randall (South Dakota), and Gavins Point (on the Nebraska-South Dakota border). These dams capture the historic high spring flows that once triggered fish to spawn. The Corps releases water in the summer to support barge traffic below Sioux City, and to provide flows for drinking water systems (Omaha) and to cool powerplants and industries along the river.
Nebraska Wildlife Federation believes that fish, wildlife and recreation, while officially authorized purposes of the Corps management, have been given lower priority historically in dam operations than in other uses. We believe the Corps and Congress should recognize the economic and environmental benefits of changing the management of the Missouri River to boost fish, wildlife and recreation.
Dr. Marian Maas, Federation Board Member and Past President, helps represent conservation interests on the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee, which is coordinating efforts to begin to restore Missouri River habitat and flows.