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'Cross The Wide Missouri

Significant Missouri River System Biological Sites

Greg Power*

Originally published in:
North Dakota Outdoors
(March, 2000)

Official Publication of the
State Game and Fish Department
100 North Bismarck Expressway
Bismarck, North Dakota 58501-5095

The Missouri River System is a unique and important natural resource treasure in North Dakota. However, during the past 50 years the MRS has changed more than during the previous thousands of years that humans lived along the riverbanks, and tens of thousands of years the river has flowed through what now is North Dakota.

During the 1900s, the federal government built six dams and more than 700 miles of navigation channels in seven Great Plains states, which has, for better or worse, modified one of the country's largest and most dynamic river systems in an extraordinarily short time. Depending on your perspective, federal legislation entitled the Flood Control Act of 1944 was the cure-all to the economic woes plaguing the northern Great Plains, or the death sentence of the Missouri river.

The Missouri originates in western Montana and enters North Dakota in the northwestern part of the state near Williston. A few miles after the river enters the state it is joined by its largest tributary, the Yellowstone River. The construction of Garrison Dam in central North Dakota and Oahe Dam in northcentral South Dakota changed the free-flowing Missouri into four distinct bodies of water in North Dakota: the Williston Reach of the Missouri River (and the Yellowstone River); Lake Sakakawea above Garrison Dam; the Garrison Reach of the Missouri River from Garrison Dam to an area south of Bismarck; and Lake Oahe.

Within North Dakota, the closing of Garrison Dam in 1953 dramatically changed the Missouri River floodplain. Approximately 250 of the 350 or so miles of river and floodplain (before impoundment) now lay underneath lakes Sakakawea and Oahe. Lost in this permanent inundation are thousands of acres of prime river bottomland and tens of thousands of years of pertinent history.

North Dakota

Today, though greatly modified, approximately 100 miles of river and floodplain remain. It is interesting to note that according to the congressionally approved Map of the Missouri River published in 1895, North Dakota possesses 408 miles of Missouri River channel. This compares to 348 miles listed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in more recent years. Apparently, some river real estate was already lost in the first portion of the 20th century due river straightening/engineering efforts.

Despite these changes and losses, the MRS still offers a wide array of benefits and aesthetics. For example, North Dakota realizes economic benefits of more than $130 million annually from hydropower, flood control, recreation and water supply.

Although not originally intended, the MRS has provided unparalleled sport fishing opportunities in North Dakota. Shortly after completion of the dams, a world class northern pike fishery developed. By the mid-1970s, a strong walleye fishery began to grow and continues today. Other species such as sauger, rainbow smelt, chinook salmon, rainbow and brown trout, and smallmouth bass play an important part in the overall success of the fishery. Fishing on the MRS has become a destination for not only North Dakotans, but for anglers across the country.

Impoundment of the Missouri River caused significant losses to fish and wildlife and their habitats. For example, pre-impoundment surveys in North Dakota projected 800,000 pheasants would be displaced and their habitat permanently lost with the rising waters of Sakakawea and Oahe. Likewise, one-fifth of the state's wooded land was lost. Despite these losses, many locations/sites within and along the MRS are important in terms of fish and wildlife.

After reviewing the entire MRS within North Dakota, OUTDOORS is featuring nine sites of special biological significance. These sites either possess unique and regionally/nationally important species and associated habitat; are essential for reproduction of rare or recreationally important species; or form a distinctive landscape for North Dakota and the MRS. These sites range from the muddy waters near the confluence of the Yellowstone/Missouri rivers to the majestic, though dying, old cottonwood forest at Smith Grove, and are scattered from near the South Dakota border to the Montana line.

Biologically significant MRS sites should not be confused with "natural areas" spread across the state. Natural areas such as the Nature Conservancy's Cross and Davis ranches are unique because they remain essentially in the same shape today as before the arrival of Europeans. The Missouri River System has been altered dramatically, and few true natural areas remain. Nonetheless, sites important to fish and wildlife or outdoor experiences are worthy of protection.

This resource is based on the following source:
Power, Greg, Fred Ryckman, Jeff Hendrickson, Jason Lee, Chris Grondahl, and 
     Darren Bruning.  2000.  'Cross the wide Missouri: Significant Missouri 
     River system biological sites.  North Dakota Outdoors 63(8):6-20.

This resource should be cited as:

Power, Greg, Fred Ryckman, Jeff Hendrickson, Jason Lee, Chris Grondahl, and 
     Darren Bruning.  2000.  'Cross the wide Missouri: Significant Missouri 
     River system biological sites.  North Dakota Outdoors 63(8):6-20.
     Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.  
     (Version 18SEP2000).

Table of Contents

*Greg Power is the Game and Fish Department's central district fisheries supervisor.
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