Changes on Upper Missouri could boost fish, trees

Excerpts:

More than 90 years after dams started to choke off the Upper Missouri River, government officials are drafting a plan to restore the river's natural flow to boost its endangered fish and ailing stands of cottonwood trees.

The river courses for almost 150 miles through the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, a remote and largely undeveloped badlands in central Montana set aside by President Bill Clinton in 2001. Its upstream reaches and tributaries are dammed off for power production and irrigation.

…Representatives of state and federal agencies meet in Great Falls beginning Tuesday to lay out the proposed changes. The goal is to create river conditions similar to historic spring floods, which could take several years.

…Pressure is increasing on the government to act.

A federal lawsuit filed in Missoula two weeks ago by Western Watersheds Project pits environmentalists and river outfitters against cattle producers who graze their animals along the Upper Missouri's banks under federal permits.

The complaint charges that in the absence of reproducing cottonwoods that provide the only shade along the river, grazing should be halted. Ranchers have warned that would inflict a sharp blow on the area's struggling economy.

Changes to the federal dam operations offer a less contentious solution, said Janelle Holden with The Wilderness Society.