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

Autumn Migrations

Autumn Migration: Redhead Ducks Courtesy US FWS Nate Rathbun, Photographer
Redhead Ducks
Courtesy US FWS
Nate Rathbun, Photographer
Here comes Autumn, especially noticed in the northern parts of Utah: the colors, the cool air, the absence of many insects, the falling leaves, and the occasional dusting of snow in the mountains.

In these weather-changing conditions, wildlife species have four options: adapt to colder weather, migrate to better conditions, hibernate…or die. Today, we’ll consider migration.

As recorded by the National Geographic Society, Entomology Professor Emeritus, Hugh Dingle, mentions five basic characteristics of migration:

Prolonged movements that carry animals outside familiar habitats.

  1. They tend to be linear, not zig-zag patterns.
  2. They involve special behaviors of preparation and arrival (such as overfeeding).
  3. They demand special allocations of energy.
  4. They maintain attention to the greater mission. Meaning they are undistracted by temptations, and undeterred by challenges, that would turn other animals aside.
  5. They feel they can eat, rest, or mate later.

The entire migration movement involves body shape, physical processes, and genetics of each species.

For ten years, scientists have been documenting one of the largest aerial mass migrations on earth. According to Science Magazine, three and one half trillion insects were recorded on radar traveling from southern England to Africa and back. They represented 3,200 tons of biomass (living tissues), which was more than seven times that of the thirty million songbirds that make that same annual flight.

Movements don’t have to be monumental to be considered migratory. For instance, some consider the daily changes in depth of ocean zooplankton to be a form of migration. They spend the day near the surface benefiting from the food provided by sunlight, then sink to darker depths at night to hide.

Some rattlesnakes in Western Canada are also considered migratory as they have been tracked to relocate anywhere from 5 to 33 miles each year. This movement is spurred by cold temperatures which reduce food, and a scarcity of good den sites below the earth’s surface, which must be warm enough and at times capable of holding up to 1,000 snakes. In contrast, Arizona rattlers travel far less because they don’t require that need.

Pronghorns, which are not really antelopes, travel far and fast, around 60 miles per hour. One group travels hundreds of miles from north-central Montana up into Alberta for breeding in the Spring. Another group of nearly 20,000 goes from Grand Teton National park south to the sagebrush plains near Pinedale, Wyoming for the winter. The routes of both groups do not vary, which can be hazardous if they are blocked by snows.

Biodiversity of ecosystems and processes, which enable each species to survive, is critical. But Conservation scientists also try to preserve migrational behaviors.

Monarchs in Mexico Courtesy FWS Pablo Leutaud, Photographer Licensed under Creative Commons
Monarchs in Mexico
Courtesy FWS
Pablo Leutaud, Photographer
Licensed under Creative Commons
No doubt, there are fragile creatures which travel south to avoid cold temperatures as well as lack of food. The Monarch butterfly comes to mind. The disappearance of flowers, and freezing cold would spell doom for them in northern climates. So they embark on a 3,000 mile journey to Mexico, or southern California. Let’s consider some other long-distance, roundtrip travelers:
*Salmon and Caribou also migrate 3,000 miles.
*Dragonflies will go 10,000 miles.
*Leatherback turtles swim 12,000 miles.
*Elephant seals and Humpback whales swim over 13,000 miles.
*For birds, Northern Wheatears and Pectoral Sandpipers fly 18,000 miles.
*Sooty Shearwaters fly from the Falkland Islands to Arctic waters, a roundtrip of 40,000 miles.
*The champion distance migrant, the Arctic Tern, flies 44,000 miles from the Arctic north of Greenland to Antarctica every year!
*And the longest nonstop flight goes to the Bar-Tailed Godwit at over 7,000 miles from Alaska to New Zealand in nine consecutive days!

An entire program could also be dedicated to human migrations including various Native American tribes, the Nenets who herd reindeer 400 miles in the Russian Yamal Peninsula, and the ancient people who crossed the Bering Strait to settle in the Americas.

As we close this session of Fall migrations, consider the words of George Eliot who wrote
the following in 1841: “Delicious Autumn. My very soul is wedded to it. And if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive Autumns.”

This is Ron Hellstern for Wild About Utah


Credits:

Images: Readhead Ducks, Courtesy US FWS, Nate Rathbun, Photographer; Monarchs in Mexico, Courtesy US FWS but licensed under Creative Commons, Pablo Leutaud, Photographer
Text:     Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

Additional Reading

https://www.fws.gov/midwest/news/monarchpopulation2016.html

https://www.fws.gov/radar/migration/index.html

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1290

Canary in the Cornfield: Why the Fuss about Monarchs?

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/news/snake-migration/

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/08/060808-bird-migration.html

Kokanee Salmon in Utah

Edith Bowen third graders watch Kokanee Salmon in Cinnamon Creek Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling
Edith Bowen third graders watch Kokanee Salmon in Cinnamon Creek
Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling
It’s a cool crisp morning as my Edith Bowen third graders disembark their mini buses at Cinnamon Creek Campground and sprint for the water’s edge. We’re here to witness an animalian rite of passage as old as evolutionary time: the Salmon Run.

Kokanee Salmon in Cinnamon Creek Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling
Kokanee Salmon in Cinnamon Creek
Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling
Utahns flock to reservoirs and their adjacent streams all over the state in early autumn to watch as salmon- adorned in their fiery red spawning attire- depart their placid range waters en route to their natal homeland. It’s an extraordinary feat of endurance. The salmon, once they start, will not rest or eat for the duration of their journey upstream. We have Kokanee Salmon here in Utah, brought from the far reaches of the Pacific Northwest. ‘Kokanee’ is an Okanagan word used to refer to landlocked populations of Sockeye Salmon. Unlike their ocean-dwelling cousins, Kokanees will spend their entire lives in fresh water, trading the unattainable ocean swells for a more placid existence in inland lakes. I’ll let Blake explain how it happened. “A long time ago, some Sockeye schools got separated from one another- possibly when mountains formed, large bodies of water shrank, or some fish decided to try something new. This caused some Sockeye to be cut off from the ocean. However, all Sockeye Salmon, including Kokanees, will return to the same freshwater streams where they were born.” In the case of our fish, they are travelling from Porcupine Reservoir, in East Canyon at the southern end of Cache Valley, upstream to nesting sites along the East Fork of the Little Bear River.

And when they return, it is an impressive sight to behold! Salmon is a word derived from the Latin salmo, itself a possible derivative of salire, meaning “to leap.” And leap they do! Over beaver dams and waterfalls, rock outcroppings and logjams in order to make their way upstream. Salmon are well-known for their acrobatics even when they aren’t attempting to scale a turbulent obstacle course, and scientists are really at a loss as to why. “Some people think the salmon jump out of the water to clean parasites from their gills and scales. Others say they jump because their bodies are changing, or because they’re agitated. I think it’s because they want to get to a shallower area so they can lay their eggs.” It’s quite clear to Aspen why the fish are breaching the water today. They have places to be and evolutionary duties to fulfill.

The salmon run is a coming-of-age ritual of sorts wherein mature adult Kokanee Salmon, usually around the age of three to five years old, vie for the privilege of reproduction. For salmon, reproduction is a taxing stage of life. Their bodies morph and change colors- the males much more so than the females; social hierarchies can break down entirely as a result of competition to breed; and females may lay eggs in as many as three to five different nests, known as redds, before tirelessly defending their progeny until the very end.

During our excursion along the Little Bear River, students were able to see both the beginning and the end of the Kokanee life cycle. Adjacent to the spawning redds where the next generation lay incubating, there were several mature adults seen wavering in their task, their scales turned gray from age and exhaustion. One departed salmon washed up on the river bank, causing quite a stir amongst the young researchers gathered there.

The salmon run is a fascinating and poetic scene to witness. In their last grand gesture to the perpetuation of life, the spawning Kokanee admirably fulfill their evolutionary duty, and pass from this world to whatever is next for such an elegant fish.

Writing and reading for Wild About Utah, I’m Josh Boling.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
Text: Josh Boling

Sources & Additional Reading

Strand, Holly, Kokanee Salmon, Wild About Utah, October 7, 2008 http://wildaboututah.org/kokanee-salmon/

Strand, Holly, Kokanee Life Cycle, Wild About Utah, September 19, 2013, http://wildaboututah.org/kokanee-life-cycle/

Fifield, Laurie, Kokanee Salmon at Cinnamon Creek, YouTube, Sep 13, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hcs6LK-O5Pg

See red spawning kokanee salmon, Sept. 16, 2017 is Kokanee Salmon Viewing Day at Strawberry & Sheep Creek, Strawberry Reservoir, Wildlife News, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/wildlife-news/2095-see-kokanee-salmon-at-strawberry-reservoir-2.html

Little Bear River/Porcupine Reservoir Salmon Run, Josh1990, The Trek Planner, Sept 17.2017, http://thetrekplanner.com/little-bear-riverporcupine-reservoir-salmon-run/

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/