Before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation dammed and channelized the Missouri from its headwaters in Montana to its mouth near St. Louis, the river possessed a wealth of sandbars and sandy shoals, gravelly beds and rock-strewn rapids, deep holes and shallow riffles, side channels and narrow chutes, sunken snags and floating piles of brush, tepid pools and fast-paced currents. The Missouri’s complex character translated into an array of aquatic habitats. All sorts of fish found a home in the river and its adjacent waters, including blue catfish, channel catfish, bullhead, northern pike, black bass, bluegill, sauger, gar, shovelnose sturgeon, and pallid sturgeon.
But the Army’s channelization structures along the lower river and its dams and reservoirs along the upper river simplified the Missouri River ecosystem. In Montana and the Dakotas, massive, clear, cold reservoirs replaced the former murky, warm, serpentine river. South of Sioux City, Iowa, a narrow, fast, uniformly deep, and relatively clear navigation channel supplanted the former silt-laden, wide, shallow, and slow river of old. The changes in the Missouri brought on by the work of the Army engineers wiped out much of the river’s former aquatic habitat and many of the fish that depended on that habitat.
Today, the lower river holds far fewer fish and less species diversity than it did a mere 75 years ago. Four fish species have come to dominate the river below Sioux City. Buffalo fish, channel catfish, German carp, and Asian carp are thriving in the channelized segment of the Missouri. The last two species are non-natives, introduced either willfully or inadvertently by the ecologically ignorant. Those invasive species have done so well in the lower river because its been remade into an industrial ditch. A river in a more natural state would be far less hospitable to the German and Asian carp. In the upper river, walleye, chinook salmon, and northern pike are flourishing in the reservoirs.
At this moment, the Army is attempting, against stiff opposition from the state of Missouri’s federal representatives, to restore a portion of the lower river’s former floodplain. The Army engineers are accomplishing this restoration work by letting the river flow back into its old side channels. Chute restoration will not bring back the river’s former fish abundance or diversity, but it is a step in the right direction. If humanity, which has such tremendous creative potential, is ever going to recover what we lost along the Missouri, it needs to take three major steps: 1) dismantle the 750-mile-long navigation channel; 2) allow the silty, nutrient-rich waters now captured in the upstream reservoirs to again flow into the lower river; and 3) enable the lower river to re-establish its former snag-filled channel, deep holes, shallow riffles, sandy shoals, narrow chutes, and oxbow lakes.
You may think a river restoration program on the scale envisioned in the previous paragraph is nothing more than the pipe dream of an out-of-touch intellectual. Well. Think again. If the American people had the will and technology to remake the Missouri into the industrial river it is today, we can certainly garner the will and expertise to create the river of tomorrow. A starting point for that re-generative effort are the written accounts of those who encountered the Missouri River in the nineteenth century. Old travelogues and the paintings of men such as Karl Bodmer (see above image) provide us with a glimpse of the river of the past as well as a blueprint for the river of the future. Below are a few descriptions of the wild Missouri and its amazing diversity of fish.
William Clark, August 15, 1804, near present-day Homer, Nebraska. “I took ten men & went out to Beaver Dam across a Creek about a mile S W from Camp, and with a Brush Drag caught 308 fish, of the following kind (i’e) Pike, Samon, Bass, Pirch, Red horse, Small Cat, & a kind of Perch Called on the Ohio Silverfish I also Caught the Scrimp which is Common to the Lower part of the Mississippi, in this Creek & in the Beaver Pond is emince beads of Mustles [Mussels] Verry large & fat….”
John C. Luttig, May 29, 1812, in today’s Saline County, Missouri. “…went fishing with the Seine and caught 13 large fish 1 Turtle, the wind having comewhat [sic] abated we made way at 2 P.M. but still wind ahead, at the little Osage Prairie we stopped for the little Boat which got aground, met a shoal of Cat fish close in shore the men who were Cordelling killed one with a stick with weighed after cleaning 40 lbs, went on a little way and found a small Run full of fish, the other Boat not having come up as yett we took our Seine and caught 161 Bass and other fish, which we salted….”
Edward Harris, June 26, 1843, at Fort Union, near modern-day Williston, North Dakota. Harris describes what is likely a rare pallid sturgeon. “…we found a strange Fish had been caught by one of the Trappers, it had run into shoal water and he took it out with his hands. It is a sturgeon of a description quite new to us, it has a long pointed snout very small eyes and very large mouth and the vertebral scales form a very slight and almost even ridge without any of those strong protuberances of the sturgeon of the Delaware. Mr. Audubon believes that it is not the sturgeon of the Mississippi and the Ohio.”
John James Audubon, August 8, 1843, at Fort Union. “This evening we went a-fishing across the river, and caught ten good catfish of the upper Missouri species, the sweetest and best fish of the sort that I have eaten in any part of the country.”