DENVER (AP) — A federal judge rejected claims that a long-stalled irrigation dam in Montana would doom a primitive, endangered fish species, prompting U.S. officials to say Tuesday that a contract for the project will be awarded by the end of the year.
Judge Brian Morris ruled last week that environmental groups failed to prove there were practical alternatives to the Yellowstone River dam that will serve about 400 farmers in western North Dakota and eastern Montana.
It will include a fish passage so about 125 pallid sturgeon can reach upstream spawning grounds that they've been separated from for decades.
A request for construction bids on the government-sponsored project was issued last week. Bids are due Aug. 16 and a contract is expected to be awarded sometime in 2018, said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Jamie Danesi.
Federal officials previously estimated the project would cost $59 million, but Danesi said Tuesday the final price could range from $40 million to $50 million.
The long-snouted pallid sturgeon, which evolved from fish from the age of the dinosaurs, are already cut off from their spawning grounds by a wood-and-rock irrigation dam in eastern Montana.
Morris twice put the new dam on hold during the past several years after opponents said there was no proof the fish passage would help sturgeon. As an alternative, they argued for the installation of a pump system to deliver water to farmers.
An appeals court overruled Morris in April and sent the case back to him for further review. In a ruling issued last Friday, the judge noted again there was "weak" information on whether pallid sturgeon would use the fish passage.
But Morris said the environmentalists who sued to stop the dam and fish passage failed to prove it was worse for sturgeon than the existing rock weir.
Attorneys for the environmentalists who sued over the project were weighing whether to appeal, said Jonathan Proctor with Defenders of Wildlife.
"We will continue to work toward a solution that will restore a free flowing Yellowstone River for the pallid sturgeon while providing water for irrigators," Proctor said.