An agreement comes after environmental groups successfully sued to stop the $59 million dam along the Yellowstone near the Montana-North Dakota border.
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) U.S. officials will consider an alternative to a dam proposed on the Yellowstone River over worries it could hurt an endangered fish species that dates to the time of dinosaurs, after a judge on Jan. 5 approved a settlement in a lawsuit over the project.
The agreement comes after environmental groups successfully sued to stop the $59 million dam along the Yellowstone near the Montana-North Dakota border. It was signed by attorneys for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris issued an order putting the lawsuit on hold pending a new study of the project.
The low-profile, concrete dam was intended to replace a weir northeast of Glendive that for more than a century has blocked about 125 endangered sturgeon from reaching their upstream spawning grounds. That weir, called the Intake Diversion Dam, is a porous, rock dam that diverts water for an irrigation system serving more than 50,000 acres of cropland in eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
Morris blocked construction of the new dam in September, just as work was set to begin. Attorneys for Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council had argued there was no proof a fish bypass channel included as part of the project would work.
“We're hoping the agencies take a real hard, realistic look at just taking that dam out of the river altogether,' said McCrystie Adams, an attorney of Defenders of Wildlife. “There's no reason for that dam. You take out the dam, and you fix the problem.'
Representatives of the Army Corps, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation could not immediately comment on the agreement.
Pallid sturgeon are known for a distinctive, shovel-shaped snout and can live 50 years, reaching 6 ft. in length. 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.
The sturgeon inhabiting the lower Yellowstone have been essentially trapped downstream of the rock weir since it was built in 1905. At least one female fish managed to swim around the structure during high water last year, but that was considered a rare occurrence.
Three irrigation districts that would benefit from the project joined the case on the side of the government in June. They argued the dam and bypass would help sturgeon and protect the future of the farms served by the water project.
Those irrigators — the Savage Irrigation District, Intake Irrigation District and Lower Yellowstone Project — remain hesitant about removing the weir. It would require the installation of costly pumps and other equipment to keep water flowing to farmers, their attorney, Mark Stermitz, said.
Nevertheless, Stermitz signed onto the agreement between the government and environmentalists. He said he did not want to undermine future discussions about the project by pre-judging the outcome of the new environmental study that's been ordered.
“We're not afraid of where the science takes us,' he said. “We felt the government was correct in not considering [removing the weir], but we support the agreement and feel that it should get a fair hearing.'