Weber River’s Bluehead Sucker Population

Bluehead Sucker Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bluehead Sucker
Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Along the bottom of the Weber River lives a genetically-distinct fish called the bluehead sucker.
Its head is colored in dusty shades of blue, brown and gold. From the gills to the tail the fish has a pattern of gold, diamond-shaped scales with dark brown borders, which grow larger and more distinct closer to the tail.
Its large rounded nose overhangs the papillae-covered lips and mouth, which are set low to allow the fish to eat algae off surfaces.

Bluehead Sucker Courtesy  & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bluehead Sucker
Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Another distinguishing feature is its large size the adult bluehead suckers can reach a length of 16-18 inches.
One of the main benefits of the bluehead sucker in the Weber River, is its place in the food web, primarily eating algae. The cartilage scraping edges of its jaws make it easy to feed off rocks and other objects where algae may build up.

The suckers obtain nutrients from the algae, and grow to be good bait and forage fish.
Dr. Phaedra Budy, Unit Leader for the U.S Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit at USU said, “When both bluehead suckers and trout exist together, the suckers help take the predator pressure off of the game fish, and its feeding habits offer little competition with trout.”

Bluehead Sucker Courtesy  & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bluehead Sucker
Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
This native species has intrinsic value to the river because of its ability to indicate the health of the riverine ecosystem. But changes in the river have created challenges for the sucker by limiting its habitat.
The river no longer has the freedom to meander across the landscape since it is confined by rail tracks, highways, and urban development for much of its reach. There are also two 150-foot dams and reservoirs in its path. These changes have altered both the physical and thermal characteristics and decreased the spawning habitat of the sucker.

Bluehead Sucker Survey, Ferron Creek, Ferron Canyon, Manti-La Sal National Forest, Emery County, Utah, Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bluehead Sucker Survey, Ferron Creek, Ferron Canyon, Manti-La Sal National Forest, Emery County, Utah, Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bryan Maloney, a former graduate student in Dr. Budy’s lab, recently completed his Master’s on the bluehead sucker. His research included determining what spawning habitat the bluehead suckers use.
To do this, Maloney compared the spawning bluehead suckers in Weber River to the ones in the pristine Ferron Creek. This comparison was essential since he needed to see what the spawning suckers chose in the unaltered streams.
Budy explains, if we only studied Weber it would be similar to observing a student who rented a really bad apartment for a semester because he was broke – then saying, “Oh, this must be what he likes to live in,” and not recognizing he would have chosen something much better if he had the resources.

By comparing the two rivers, Maloney discovered the spawning suckers use wide channels with plenty of pools, gravel, and cobble. Once the eggs hatch, the juvenile suckers use nearshore locations where the water is slow and deep and the young suckers find it easier to hide, eat, and grow.

Bluehead Sucker Netting Survey Courtesy  & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bluehead Sucker Netting Survey
Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
According to Maloney, “These diverse habitat components are critical for spawning adult and growing juvenile bluehead suckers. Restoring them to the Weber River, will assist in recovering this imperiled population.”
Although Weber River is limited in these habitat characteristics, the future of the riverine ecosystem is optimistic due to the formation of the Weber River Partnership.

The agencies in the partnership include Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Trout Unlimited, Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, both the Weber River and Provo River Water Users Associations, City of Ogden, PacifiCorp, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Davis and Weber Counties Canal Company.

Plans are underway for the fish habitat restoration in the Weber River, which will be a big help to the future of bluehead suckers, and whatever steps are taken to benefit habitat for suckers will also benefit the native trout.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Bryan Maloney
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Bluehead Sucker, Utah Conservation Data Center, Utah Division of Wildlife Management, https://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=catodisc

Thompson, Paul D., Bonneville Cutthroat Trout and Bluehead Sucker in the Weber River: Endangered Species Act Implications, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Jun 15, 2015, https://www.slideshare.net/PaulThompson47/weber-river-partnership-native-species-presentation

Webber, P. Aaron, Thompson, Paul D. and Buddy, Phaedra, Status and Structure of two Populations of the Bluehead Sucker(Catostomus discobolus) in the Weber River, Utah, http://www.usu.edu/fel/publications/pdf/Webber_et_al_%202012_BLH_Weber.pdf

Budy, Phaedra; Thiede, Gary P; Mckay, Samuel; Weber River metapopulation structure and source-sink dynamics of native fishes, 2011-2013, http://www.usu.edu/fel/research/weber-river/

Blueheads and Bonnevilles Restoration Project Inspires Weber River Partnership, National Fish Habitat Partnership, October 19, 2016, http://www.fishhabitat.org/news/blueheads-and-bonnevilles-restoration-project-inspires-weber-river-partners

Weber River Partnership Protects World-Class Fishery, Paul Thompson, Guest Blogger, Utah Department of Environmental Quality, https://deq.utah.gov/news/tag/bluehead-sucker

Trout vs. Chub

Trout vs. Chub: Graduate student Lisa Winters holds a mature tiger trout. Trout grow quickly when they are on a Utah chub diet.
Graduate student Lisa Winters holds a mature tiger trout. Trout grow quickly when they are on a Utah chub diet.
Scofield Reservoir (a 2,815-acre, man-made lake), has, “Historically [been] the most important trout fishery in Utah’s southeastern region…” says Dr. Phaedra Budy, Unit Leader for the U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit at USU.

The trout (tiger, cutthroat and rainbow) now share the reservoir with high densities of Utah chub. The reservoir is thick with chub – a carp-like fish that matures quickly and is extremely prolific. At times chub have outnumbered trout in Scofield Reservoir nine to one.

Trout vs. Chub: The competitors: trout vs Utah chub in Scofield Reservoir
The competitors: trout vs Utah chub in Scofield Reservoir
The Utah Chub is native to the state, as indicated by its name, but it wasn’t observed in the lake until 2005.

The main concern for fisheries managers is whether or not the growing population of chub will compete with sport fish for food and/or space, as has been observed elsewhere, or whether chub can be effectively controlled by trout populations.

Trout vs. Chub: Undergraduate student Konrad Hafen holds a mature Tiger trout which preys on the Utah chub.
Undergraduate student Konrad Hafen holds a mature Tiger trout which preys on the Utah chub.
In an effort to answer these questions, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) commissioned a multi-year research project with Dr. Phaedra Budy’s Fish Ecology Lab in the Department of Watershed Sciences, Quinney College of Natural Resources to determine the predator and forage relationships between the trout and chub.

Fishing on Scofield Reservoir
Fishing on Scofield Reservoir
Based on this USU research, one observed benefit of chub is the impact it has on the growth of trout that eat it. After stocked tiger and cutthroat trout reach a certain size (usually a year after being stocked) they switch to a diet of fish and begin eating the chub.

According to Gary Thiede, fishery biologist in the Department of Watershed Sciences, once the trout begin eating chub they grow rapidly. Tiger trout in particular grow to very large sizes eating a diet of 100% chub.

Sunset on Scofield Reservoir
Sunset on Scofield Reservoir
The chub may, therefore, be beneficial to the reservoir’s ecosystem if the numbers are controlled.

DWR has used three trout species to control the population of chub and also enforced a catch and release rule for larger cutthroat trout so the biggest predators would remain in the reservoir. But since chub can live up to 30 years, some of the adults have reached a size where they are too big for trout to eat.

Graduate student Lisa Winters holds a tiger trout likely stocked earlier that spring. It takes at least a year before the stocked fish grow big enough to begin preying on the chub.
Graduate student Lisa Winters holds a tiger trout likely stocked earlier that spring. It takes at least a year before the stocked fish grow big enough to begin preying on the chub.
In 2016, it became obvious the public would no longer tolerate waiting for the trouts’ appetite to decrease the chub population.

After an extensive public input process, of gathering over 2500 public angler surveys, a committee was formed comprising of Scofield residents, sportsmen organizations, and wildlife agencies to develop a management plan, which would provide DWR recommendations to control the Utah chub population and create a sustainable, high-quality fishery at Scofield.

Research technicians pull in a net full of Utah chub.
Research technicians pull in a net full of Utah chub.
The plan was reviewed and approved by the Central and Southeast Regional Advisory Councils.

The first step in the plan will be DWR introducing three new fish to Scofield: wiper (a hybrid of white and striped bass), tiger muskie and triploid walleye.

According to Chris Wood, the southeastern regional supervisor, “All three grow quickly and have an appetite for the Utah chub.”

Justin Hart, the DWR’s aquatics manager in southeastern Utah said, we don’t want to completely eliminate [the chub], but we do need to get their biomass down. We plan to use the chub to grow some big fish.

Once the chub population has dropped, DWR will resume stocking the rainbow trout – a favorite among the state anglers.

If the plan is successful, the chub population will remain at a sustainable level and be a benefit, instead of a burden to the Scofield Reservoir trout populations.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Leavitt, Shauna, Trout vs. chub, Dueling it out in Scofield Reservoir, https://wildlife.utah.gov/blog/2014/trout-vs-chub/

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Hayley Glassic with a Bear Lake Cutthroat Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Hayley Glassic with a Bear Lake Cutthroat
Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
In Bear Lake, there lives a small, bright blue eyed, bottom-dwelling fish species that may appear insignificant as it moves among the lake’s cobble areas.

The fish grows up to three inches in length and is endemic to Utah’s northern most lake, hence its name – the Bear Lake sculpin.

The sculpin is a scale-free, tadpole-like fish with a broad flat head, a slender body and eyes placed high on its head. It has elaborate pectoral fins that stretch out like decorative fans from both sides of its body and two dorsal fins along its back that sometimes connect at the base.

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Sculpin Courtesy & Copyright Jereme Gaeta
Sculpin
Courtesy & Copyright Jereme Gaeta
Although the sculpin is small, its worth is significant. One of the main sportfish of Bear Lake, the Bonneville Cutthroat trout, rely heavily on the sculpin to be a source of food as its main forage fish, the sculpin makes up more than 70% of the diet for juvenile trout.

Interestingly, Bear Lake is the only place the sculpin is natively found and it is one of only two sculpins in the West that live in deep-water lake habitats.

It stays exclusively in the lake. While other fish in Bear Lake migrate up the tributaries to spawn, the sculpin seek out the lakes cobble areas where it can find cavities under and between the rocks to lay its eggs.

The best cobble habitat in Bear Lake is along the eastern shore at Cisco Beach where the shallow water covers the rounded rocks that range from 2-12 inches in size. Only 0.1% of Bear Lake is cobble habitat.

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Bear Lake Sckulpin Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Bear Lake Sculpin
Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
The shallow location of the cobble is important for the successful nest since the wave turbulence begins the hatching process. Waves and currents also help with the dispersal of the sculpin embryos throughout the 282 square kilometer lake.

Once hatched the young-of-the year have a feeding ritual quite different from their juvenile and adult counterparts. While the older sculpin stay on the bottom of the lake foraging for food, the young float up during the day to where the sun easily penetrates the water. The sunlight makes it easier for the young sculpin to find their food and it warms their bodies so they can digest their food more rapidly– which stimulates growth. The young sculpin can feed up to nine times faster during the day than they would at night. Once they have grown, it is difficult for sculpin to rise up the water column because they do not have swim bladders as trout do.

An essential component to have a large population of new sculpin each year is to ensure there is sufficient cobble habitat in Bear Lake.

When drought years hit, large portions of the cobble are exposed due to both that drought and human use. While the lake has never dropped to the level where all cobble habitat is exposed, a USU research team has documented more than 96% of cobble reductions during extreme multi-year drought events. This raises major concerns and questions about how a decrease in cobble would impact the sculpin population.

To investigate this question, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources awarded a research grant to Jereme Gaeta, assistant professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences and the Ecology Center in the Quinney College of Natural Resources to improve our understanding of the potential effects of drought on cobble habitats and fish communities.

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Sculpin in Haley Glassic's hand Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Sculpin in Haley Glassic’s hand
Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Hayley Glassic, a graduate student in Gaeta’s lab has worked on this project since 2015. In the coming months their findings will be published and made available to the public.

This may be important reading for any agency or person making decisions about the Bear Lake water levels, which would impact the cobble habitat of the Bear Lake sculpin.

According to Glassic, “Sculpin appear to be one of the essential parts of the entire (Bear Lake) ecosystem.” Ensuring their cobble habitat is preserved during drought years is necessary for the overall health of the lake’s ecosystem.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Jereme Gaeta
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, USGS, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?SpeciesID=503

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, Fishbase Consortium, http://fishbase.org/summary/Cottus-extensus.html

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=cottexte

Bear Lake Blue Ribbon Fishery, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/hotspots/brwaterbody.php?id=41

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, Idaho Fish & Game, https://idfg.idaho.gov/ifwis/cwcs/pdf/Bear%20Lake%20Sculpin.pdf

Orphaned Bear Cub Rehabilitation

Orphaned Cub: Bear Cubs in an Enclosure One of the facility’s natural climbing structures, and some of the conspecific interactions that took place in the pens. myers.patrick.rehab.bear.cubs.250x224
Bear Cubs in an Enclosure One of the facility’s natural climbing structures, and some of the conspecific interactions that took place in the pens.

New research reveals that orphaned cubs will likely avoid humans if properly rehabilitated.

Sadly each year, there are orphaned bear cubs in Utah. Some lose their mothers to forest fires, while others are orphaned by vehicle-bear collisions or other human-related conflicts.

If the orphaned cubs are too young to survive on their own and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) finds them before they perish they can be rehabilitated and have a good chance of surviving.

With the help of USU’s Dr. Julie Young a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist and associate professor in the Quinney College of Natural Resources, who has expertise in managing carnivores in captivity, DWR was able to help build appropriate enclosures for the rehabilitation of the cubs.

Young helped built these temporary homes at the USDA National Wildlife Research Center’s Predator Research Facility in Millville, Utah.

To ensure the enclosures met the basic needs of cubs the researchers contacted approximately a dozen rehab facilities around the US and Canada to find out “HOW” to rehab bears.
Interestingly, there were large differences in responses.

According to Young, “A few consistent traits did emerge. Bears get easily bored, they like to play and investigate everything. So, we made sure the pens had lots of enrichment items and activities and everything was extremely sturdy since bears are very strong even as babies!

“Because they were being released back into the wild, we wanted to do as much as we could to give them natural surroundings – like logs, twigs, etc.

We scattered nuts and berries around so the cubs could learn to forage.”
One fun thing about bears – is they love water! The cubs spent a lot of time in their huge tubs or playing in the water fountain meant for drinking.

Dr. Young’s graduate student, Patrick Myers, recently completed a study of the orphaned cub rehabilitation which contributed to DWR’s Bear Management Plan to “maintain a healthy bear population…while considering human safety.”
Myers began his work in the summer of 2014 when DWR brought six orphaned cubs to the Millville bear rehabilitation site.
Throughout the rehabilitation, there was very little human contact to ensure the bears did not become familiar with humans. This was tough since cubs are cute and people wanted to see them. However, they remained firm and did not allow visiting hours. They removed as many human sights, sounds and odors as possible by keeping noise to a minimum, and since bears have extremely good noses they eliminated as many human smells as possible no perfumes or scented lotions were allowed.

At feeding time they fed the cubs from behind a blind, or put them in one pen while they cleaned and left food in the other. The researchers never went in the same pen as the cubs.

Loading two immobilized and recently collared cubs into their enclosures for transport to their release locations. myers.patrick.release.team.250x166
Loading two immobilized and recently collared cubs into their enclosures for transport to their release locations.

Myer’s research was unique. In addition to the regular food and development regiments, the cubs went through numerous behavioral tests to determine if they were bold, shy or somewhere in between when introduced to novel stimulus.

Consistent test results were the key in determining what type of animal personalities the cubs had.
One test included placing the cubs in a new enclosure with the same layout as their previous one. The shy cubs responded by hugging the walls and cautiously moving around while the bold cubs began exploring immediately with little signs of fear.

Once Myers classified the bears, and the cubs were old enough, the research team released the young bears to remote locations throughout Utah.

Patrick Myers has immobilized and extracted one of the bears from her den in early spring of 2016 to assess her health and the fit of her collar; this was in the Lake Canyon area, southwest of Duchesne. myers.patrick.den.check.250x188
Patrick Myers has immobilized and extracted one of the bears from her den in early spring of 2016 to assess her health and the fit of her collar; this was in the Lake Canyon area, southwest of Duchesne.

Myers monitored the bears throughout 2015 until they emerged from their dens in the spring of 2016.
“The bears were fitted with expandable GPS collars so they would grow when the cubs did and so Myers could watch their movement from a computer. Myers went to check out dens once they left them, to be sure their habitat choices were appropriate based on bear biology.

Young explains, “We went with UDWR and checked on the two females their second denning season in the wild –and they looked great!”

Myers and Young were pleased to see that even though the cubs had been in close proximity to the smell of humans for many months; neither the bold nor the shy bears sought humans once they released them. They all had healthy responses to their natural habitat and behaved much like young bears not orphaned. They searched for dens almost immediately, and remained in the remote locations.

Although this is a small study, the initial results show that orphaned cubs, whether shy or bold, will likely avoid humans and retain their natural instincts if property rehabilitated.

This may be a useful management practice for restoring bears where populations are dwindling and habitat is ideal.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

USDA APHIS National Wildlife Research Center, https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/wildlifedamage/programs/nwrc

Bear denning in the south Book Cliffs, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/blog/2013/bear-denning-in-the-south-book-cliffs/

“Can you help me? There’s a bear on my boat.”, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/blog/2013/can-you-help-me-theres-a-bear-on-my-boat/