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Biologists Monitoring Pallid Sturgeon For Impacts From Yellowstone River Oil Spill

Poplar pipeline crack
Courtesy Bridger Pipeline

Last week we reported that state wildlife biologists have not found any evidence of damage to fish species in the Yellowstone River downstream of the oil spill in January near Glendive. But Ryan Moehring, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service says that that doesn’t mean scientists are finished looking.

"That’s correct. We are currently taking a look at any potential impacts to the endangered pallid sturgeon in the Yellowstone River," Moehring says.

Pallid sturgeon were given endangered species status in 1990. Scientists still aren’t sure exactly how many of the fish remain in the Missouri River system.

Moehring says tracking devices implanted in some pallid sturgeon show that some were present in the river downstream of January’s rupture of the Bridger Pipeline company’s Poplar pipeline. That spilled an estimated 30,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone a few miles upstream of Glendive.

Biologists have caught and tested five other species of fish in the lower Yellowstone for damage from the oil spill, and found nothing that leads them to believe those species have suffered significant harm. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks issued a temporary advisory to people who might eat the fish, but it expired this springs.

But Moehring says biologists have not yet taken samples from pallid sturgeon to test for oil contamination.

"We captured four pallid sturgeon from the watershed. They’re currently housed at Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. They're waiting to be spawned in June. So what we're going to do once that spawing has taken place is take some samples from those live fish. We believe that will help us have a better understanding of some of the direct impacts to pallid sturgeon. But that won't occur until at least after June."

Pallid sturgeon.
Credit USFWS Midwest (CC-BY-2.0)
Pallid sturgeon

If biologists find any impacts to pallid sturgeon, Moehring says, it will be presented to a larger watchdog organization.

"It’s important to note that a trustee council has been formed. This council has been established to investigate injury related to the spill. The council consists of Fish an Wildlife Service experts as well as the state natural resource damage program expert. So we're working cooperatively with the state to identify any impacts that may have occurred."

If that council is able to quantify any damages to habitat or natural resources, they can be used to pursue a claim against Bridger Pipeline to pay for habitat restoration. When the spill occurred, the Wyoming-based company pledged to cover all clean up and restoration costs. At the end of the initial clean up, an official from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency praised Bridger for its efforts to date.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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