updated 12/5/2003 3:00:13 PM ET 2003-12-05T20:00:13

The long-running dispute over management of the nation’s longest river took another twist when the Bush administration yanked government scientists off a project to study the waterway’s ecosystem. The team had been on the job for years and was within weeks of producing what could have been its final report.

Conservation groups criticized last week’s unreported decision to remove the scientists, which they said was to protect business interests at the expense of the Endangered Species Act.

The move may block changes to the Missouri River’s flow, because the scientists had ordered the switch. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has resisted changing river operations but is under a December deadline to come up with a new plan that meets requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

A different team of scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will say whether the corps can avoid major changes — such as a previously ordered switch to a more natural spring rise and low summer flow — and remain in compliance with the act.

ACTIVISTS COMPLAIN

It’s the latest development in a bitter battle over managing the nation’s longest river, which stretches 2,341 miles from Montana to St. Louis, where it empties into the Mississippi.

Conservation groups accused the administration of trying to avoid changing to a more seasonal ebb and flow to benefit birds and fish.

“In a month’s time, a group of people that knows nothing about the Missouri are supposed to write a credible biological opinion? Give me a break,” Chad Smith, spokesman for the group American Rivers said Wednesday.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said critics were jumping to conclusions.

“Obviously, that’s prejudging what’s going to happen here, and there has been no prejudgment of what’s going to happen here,” said Hugh Vickery, spokesman for the Interior Department, which includes the service. “The bottom line is, this will go where the science leads. There is no predetermination.”

NEW TEAM, OLD TEAM

He said one of the new team leaders, Robyn Thorson, is regional director of the Service’s Big Rivers-Great Lakes region in Minnesota, which includes a portion of the Missouri. The other leader is Dale Hall, regional director of the agency’s Southwest Region in Albuquerque, N.M.

The old team of scientists said three years ago the Missouri needs a more natural spring rise and low summer levels to comply with the Endangered Species Act, and their findings were confirmed by the National Academy of Sciences. Current operations were put into place before the river’s sturgeon and shorebird species made the government’s threatened and endangered species list.

The corps resisted, and the Bush administration postponed the changes. It now is seeking a new “biological opinion” from the wildlife service.

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