Science Washed Away in Missouri River Decision Making

Published Apr 8, 2003

The management of the Missouri River, the nation's longest waterway, has long been a contentious issue. To be able to navigate the river and get grain to market, farmers and barge owners want the river's flow to be uniform in spring, summer, and fall. Conservationists and others concerned about the health of the river's ecosystem favor a more natural management scheme in which the water fluctuates with the seasons, thereby aiding the spawning of fish and nesting of birds.

In late 2000, a team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists who had been studying the river flow issued its “biological opinion” on the matter.1 This team had already issued preliminary findings that favored seasonal fluctuations in river flow, based on more than 10 years of scientific research. Such a river management system, they contended, would comply with the Endangered Species Act by helping to protect two species of birds—the threatened piping plover2 and the endangered interior least tern2—and one species of fish, the endangered pallid sturgeon.4 The findings of this team had been subjected to independent peer review and a 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences also supported the team’s results.5

The Army Corps of Engineers (the federal agency that manages water flows on the Missouri River), was ordered to come up with a management plan that protected the river’s endangered species by December 2003.6 In November of that year, however, the Bush administration intervened by creating a new team to revise the earlier biological opinion. Critics alleged that this move was an attempt to maintain river flows that favor political interests in the lower section of the Missouri River Basin.7

Craig Manson, an assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior, authorized the replacement in a memo describing the new group as “a SWAT team” that would quickly reach a judgment on the matter. Manson demanded an unusually expedited process, requiring a new biological opinion in one-third the normal time, from a 15-member team that included only two scientists from the original study and region, and co-leaders with little expertise on the Missouri River or its issues.8

In December 2003, the team released its amendment to the earlier, peer-reviewed biological opinion.9 In contrast to the original, the amended biological opinion concluded that there was no jeopardy to piping plovers and least terns from existing Missouri flows, but agreed that the proposed water levels for 2004 would jeopardize the pallid sturgeon. The amendment's proposed “reasonable and prudent alternatives” were significantly less stringent than the original biological opinion, though they did require the Army Corps of Engineers to make some river flow modifications. The Army Corps’ new Missouri river management plan, based on the amended opinion, was released in March 2004.10

The original biological opinion recommended that river flows be used to transport and deposit sediment used as habitat by the threatened and endangered birds and fish. In a natural river habitat, the shallow, nutrient-rich water where young sturgeon live includes side chutes at river’s edge, as well as shallow areas created by sediment deposited during high water flows, then exposed during dry summer months.11

By contrast, the Corps’ new management plan proposed to construct new habitat directly. Shallow water areas would be created for the pallid sturgeon through techniques such as eroding shorelines and sandbars would be built for birds to nest on. Absent an independent peer review of the amended biological opinion, it is not certain that this plan would effectively protect the species at risk.

What is clear, however, is that the Bush administration's political agenda interfered with the scientific integrity of the policymaking process in this case. Allyn Sapa, a recently retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who supervised the Missouri River project for more than five years, stated, “It's hard not to think that because our findings don’t match up with what they want to hear, they are putting a new team on the job who will give them what they want.”12

  1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2000. Agencies Announce Release of Missouri River Biological Opinion. Press release, November 30.
  2. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Regulatory Profile: Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus).
  3. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Regulatory Profile: Least tern (Sterna antillarum).
  4. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Regulatory Profile: Pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus).
  5. National Research Council (NRC). 2002. The Missouri River Ecosystem: Exploring Prospects for Recovery.
  6. Quaid, L. 2003. Bush administration yanks Missouri River scientists off project. Associated Press, November 6.
  7. Grunwald, M. 2003. Washed Away: Bush v. the Missouri River. The New Republic, October 27.
  8. Griscom, A. 2003. They blinded me with pseudo science. Grist, November 12.
  9. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2003. Missouri River Biological Opinion Assignment. Press release and memorandum, December 17.
  10. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2003. 2003 Amendment to the 2000 Biological Opinion on the Operation of the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System, Operation and Maintenance of the Missouri River Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project, and Operation of Kansas River Reservoir System. December 16.
  11. Missouri River Recovery Program. Slow Water Habitat.
  12. Griscom 2003.