By Darren Orf
A fleet of metal vessels cuts against the current on the Missouri River. Cottonwood trees, border the river accompanied by patches of yellow-flowering willows.
After a few minutes, engines fall from a loud roar to a throaty growl. Up ahead the river forks in two directions. On the left, the free-flowing river, and on the right, a small channel populated with clumps of dead branches and twisted tree stumps protruding from the water.
To the layperson the channel, just north of St. Joseph, appears as a natural part of the river, but a biologist sees an aquatic laboratory and a look into the river’s history.
“That might look ugly, but from a biological standpoint, that is phenomenal,” says Vince Travnichek, a resource science supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, as he points to the dead cottonwood trees caught in the chute’s gentle pull. “A lot of biological production at the lower end of the food chain happens in that woody debris.”
The two forked streams represent the river, past and present. A century and a half ago, the muddy Missouri might have appeared much like this chute, comprised of meandering, shallow water and woody habitat. The conservation department’s goal is simple: reestablish the river’s historical ecosystem.
Some successes have already been found, with catch rates of native catfish almost 10 times greater than average.
Any ecological boon is welcome. Decades of flood control stripped the Missouri River basin of healthy aquatic habitat, but this chute provides a glimpse of the mighty river’s natural potential.
— Edited by Megan LaManna