- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 22, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A $59 million dam and fish bypass proposed on the Yellowstone River offers the best chance to save an endangered fish population that’s long been blocked from its spawning grounds, a senior Montana official said Wednesday.

Despite some uncertainties over whether the bypass will work, it offers the only near-term option to help the pallid sturgeon recover, said John Tubbs, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Dinosaur-like pallid sturgeon can reach five feet in length and have been trapped for decades downstream of an existing rock weir at the dam site northeast of Glendive.

The structure diverts water for an irrigation system serving 57,000 acres of cropland in Montana and North Dakota.

Environmental groups are seeking to halt construction of the concrete dam through a lawsuit filed in federal court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council argue that there’s no proof the bypass would help the 125 wild sturgeon believed to survive in the lower Yellowstone River near the North Dakota border.

Tubbs said the two-mile-long bypass channel - which would give fish a route around the dam - offers a better and more cost-effective opportunity for recovery than other alternatives considered, such as installing pumps for the irrigation system. He added that $20 million already has been spent on related work to upgrade the diversion structure feeding water into the irrigation system.

“The idea that we might install pumps was looked at years ago,” Tubbs said. “It’s not like we’re starting up a project. We’re in the middle of a project.”

Pallid sturgeon was listed as an endangered species in 1990. Believed to date to the days when Tyrannosaurus Rex walked the Earth, the species has declined sharply during the past century as dams were built along the Missouri River system.

Attorneys for Tubbs’ agency and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks filed a friend-of-the-court brief Tuesday in support of the dam.

The case is before U.S. District Judge Brian Morris.

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