BILLINGS — A proposal to remove a rock dam from Montana’s Yellowstone River so an endangered, prehistoric fish species can reach its spawning grounds could cost far more than government plans to construct a new dam and fish bypass at the site for $59 million.
Environmentalists who back the no-dam proposal say it would be worth the added expense to ensure the recovery of a small population of endangered pallid sturgeon on the lower Yellowstone.
Federal officials on Thursday said they would review the proposal in coming months to determine if it’s feasible.
The existing, low-profile dam near the Montana-North Dakota border for decades has prevented an aging population of about 125 sturgeon from swimming upriver to their historic spawning grounds
A federal judge recently blocked plans from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department to build a new dam and a concrete channel for sturgeon to get around the structure. Proposed northeast of Glendive, Montana, the project also would provide irrigation water for more than 50,000 acres of cropland in eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
Environmentalists had sued over the government’s plans last year, claiming there was no proof sturgeon would use the bypass. However, removing the rock dam and installing pumps to provide irrigation water to farmers along the Yellowstone could cost several times the original project’s price tag, said Steve Forrest with Defenders of Wildlife.
If the cost is too high, Forrest acknowledged that it could become impractical. But his group and the co-plaintiffs in the case, the National Resources Defense Council, say the cost could be greatly reduced with the adoption of water conservation measures for the irrigation system and the roughly 400 farms it serves.
“Getting the dam out of the river is the best solution for the fish,” said Forrest. “We’re trying to look for cost savings, both in terms of what it would take to run the (irrigation) system and what it would take to design the system.”
A study considering different alternatives for the project is expected to be completed by November, said Army Corps’ project manager Chris Fassero. The study will determine if the no-dam alternative is technically feasible and also should provide a better understanding of the potential costs.
“I can’t really say one way or another that we think it would work or not,” Fassero said.
Known for a distinctive, long snout, pallid sturgeon can live 50 years and reach 6 feet in length. They are believed to date to the days when Tyrannosaurus Rex walked the Earth. The population declined sharply during the past century as dams were built along the Missouri River system.
They were listed as an endangered species in 1990.
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