Building a Warm Home for Endangered Razorback Suckers’ Young

Razorback Sucker: A tiny razorback sucker larvae under a microscope. They look like tiny noodles when seen swimming in the wetlands. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
A tiny razorback sucker larvae under a microscope. They look like tiny noodles when seen swimming in the wetlands.
Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Just outside Moab between the cold, fast flowing water of the Colorado River and the slow, warmer waters of the Matheson Wetland Preserve stands a newly constructed escape passage for larvae of the endangered razorback sucker.

The fish nursery was built to provide the newly hatched razorbacks a way to escape the appetites of the large predators in the Colorado River.

The tiny “noodle like” larvae enter the passage, swim through a screen which holds the predators back, then live a peaceful few months in the safe, nutrient rich water of the preserve.

Razorback Sucker: Katie Creighton and Zach Ahrens both native aquatics biologists for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) standing on the temporary Matheson screen. The Nature Conservancy and UDWR partnered together to build the structure to allow the endangered razorback sucker larvae to enter the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve without the predators also coming in. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Katie Creighton and Zach Ahrens both native aquatics biologists for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) standing on the temporary Matheson screen. The Nature Conservancy and UDWR partnered together to build the structure to allow the endangered razorback sucker larvae to enter the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve without the predators also coming in.
Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
The larvae will stay in the Matheson Wetland preserve during the summer to grow and gain strength. When water levels drop, the razorback young will be moved back into the Colorado River when they are much larger and have a better chance of survival.

The razorback sucker has lived in the Colorado River for thousands of years and has adapted to Utah’s warm turbid desert waters and rivers.

But during the twentieth century the razorbacks faced two threats: the growing population of non-native predator fish that consume the razorbacks, and the changing flow regime in the Colorado River Basin due to increasing water demand and development. These two threats decreased the razorbacks’ ability to maintain a sustainable population, which eventually led to the listing of the sucker as a federally endangered species.

Light trap near control structure in the Scott M. Matheson preserve. The traps are used to catch and monitor razorback sucker larvae. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Light trap near control structure in the Scott M. Matheson preserve. The traps are used to catch and monitor razorback sucker larvae.
Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Katie Creighton, the native aquatics project leader with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said, “In the Upper Basin [of the Colorado River], specifically around Moab, we saw [a] pretty significant decline in [population] numbers in the mid-90s [which] prompted stocking. We began to augment the populations with fish we reared in hatcheries.”

For 30 years, managers stocked razorback in the Colorado River. Then in 2008, they began noticing an increase in adult razorback numbers and detecting spawning aggregations which prompted managers to begin tracking reproduction.

Creighton explains, “We [went] into the rivers around Moab, in the Green and the Colorado Rivers, and…set larval light traps… to determine whether or not these fish were successfully spawning.”

Light trap in the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve. The trap is used to determine how many larvae make it into the preserve. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Light trap in the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve. The trap is used to determine how many larvae make it into the preserve.
Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
The light traps collected a promising amount of razorback larvae in both the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Managers could now say the razorbacks do well as stocked adults, they reproduce in the wild, and their eggs hatch successfully.

The question left unresolved is why the “young of the year” are not surviving, juvenile razorbacks are rarely seen in the wild.

Unravelling the bottleneck between when the razorbacks hatch and when they become adults has become the new focus for managers. This is where the Matheson Wetlands project came in. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources partnered with the Natural Conservancy to build the fish nursery.

Katie Creighton, native aquatics biologists for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, setting light traps in Matheson Preserve. The traps are used to monitor razorback sucker larvae. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Katie Creighton, native aquatics biologists for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, setting light traps in Matheson Preserve. The traps are used to monitor razorback sucker larvae.
Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Creighton explains, “The main goal [of the project] is to get [the razorback suckers] off the endangered species list. To recover them to self-sustaining populations that can maintain their numbers without…stocking. It’s a pretty ambitious goal, especially because we have to do [it] in the face of continued water use and water development…The recovery program is not battling or trying to stop water development, its goal is [simply] to recover these species in the face of what is currently happening with water use.”

Phaedra Budy, professor in the Watershed Sciences Department at USU and unit leader for U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit said, “The Razorback sucker has intrinsic value to the [Colorado River system], is a critical member of the ecosystem, and deserves every effort for recovery.”

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos:
    Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer, Education Specialist, Cedar Breaks National Monument
    Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt,
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Leavitt, Shauna, Piute Farms Waterfall on Lower San Juan – a Tributary of Lake Powell, Wild About Utah, Aug 6, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/piute-farms-waterfall-on-lower-san-juan-a-tributary-of-lake-powell/

Razorback Sucker(Page 68), Utah’s Endandengered Fish, 2018 Utah Fishing Guidebook, Utah Division of Wildlife Services, https://wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks/2018_pdfs/2018_fishing.pdf

Fish Ecology Lab, Utah State University, 
https://www.usu.edu/fel/

Razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus), Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, http://www.coloradoriverrecovery.org/general-information/the-fish/razorback-sucker.html

Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve, The Places We Protect, The Nature Conservancy, https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/scott-m-matheson-wetlands-preserve/

A Nursery for Endangered Fish, The Nature Conservancy, https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/utah/stories-in-utah/razorback-sucker-nursery-utah/

Old Ephraim, The Infamous Northern Utah Grizzly

Old Ephraim, the Infamous Northern Utah Grizzly: Old Ephriam's Grave Marker, The height of the the old grizzley Courtesy & Copyright Josh boling
Old Ephriam’s Grave Marker,
The height of the the old grizzley
Courtesy & Copyright Josh boling
It took all of Frank Clark’s seven steel-ball cartridges to bring down Old Ephraim, the infamous Grizzly Bear that, for many years in the early 20th century, plagued the shepherds of the Northern Wasatch Mountains. The date was August 21st, 1923, when Clark, a Logan Canyon sheepman, was roused from his slumber by the gruffs and bellows of the half-ton brown bear stuck in a trap that Clark had set down in the wallows the bear frequented. Hours later, after a thrilling chase and several charges from the massive, male Grizzly, the hunt was over and the last of Utah’s Great Bears had departed.

The Land of Deseret was once home to a robust population of Grizzly Bears. Indeed, present-day Utah sat very near the geographic center of their historical home range which once extended as far south as Central Mexico and eastward into the prairies of Minnesota and other midwestern states. When the Mormon Pioneers arrived in Salt Lake Valley, the surrounding mountains- and a majority of other ranges throughout the West- still harbored many Grizzlies. In fact, Brigham Young himself, along with early LDS leader Heber C. Kimball, was once chased up a cliff by an angry mother Grizz protecting her cubs.

Marker Detail Old Ephriam's Grave Courtesy & Copyright Josh boling
Marker Detail
Old Ephriam’s Grave
Courtesy & Copyright Josh boling
However, between the Saints’ arrival to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and Frank Clark’s killing of Old Ephraim in 1923, the Grizzly Bear was eliminated from 95% of its original home range, including Utah. Today, grizzlies roam a mere 2% of their historical range in the contiguous United States, driven from all but a few remote wildernesses in the far reaches of the Northern Rockies. As more and more settlers moved westward across the New Frontier in the latter decades of the 19th century into the early 20th century, competition for resources became stiff between humans and their ursine counterparts. As apex predators, grizzly bears pursue many of the same foods we humans do, including domestic stock, like sheep. For this reason, it’s clear why local stockmen held Old Ephraim in such contempt. What made him so notorious, though, was his remarkable intelligence.

Nephi J. Bott's Poem At Old Ephriam's Grave Courtesy & Copyright Josh boling
Nephi J. Bott’s Poem
At Old Ephriam’s Grave
Courtesy & Copyright Josh boling
Grizzlies are famously smart and are even thought to possess self-awareness. Their potential for understanding is comparable to that of the higher primates in the Animal Kingdom, which stands to reason why they are such cunning hunters. Grizzly Bears have even been known to cover their own tracks or conceal themselves with trees and rocks when either hunting or hiding, giving biologists reason to believe that these incredible animals are even capable of forethought. Perhaps, that’s why it took Frank Clark over a decade to even get a good look at Old Ephraim, much less a clear shot at him. The mighty grizzly had time and again removed Clark’s traps from his wallowing holes, discarding them elsewhere without even setting them off. However, despite his amazing intelligence and ability to adapt- or, perhaps because of them- Old Ephraim ultimately met his end that August morning in 1923.

Even after having, quote, “sworn eternal vengeance on bears,” Frank Clark ultimately professed regret for having to kill Old Ephraim; and it’s a sentiment that’s well-circulated and gaining steam here in the west, now nearly a century removed from Ephraim’s death. In 1975, as a result of their dismal population levels in the contiguous United States and high mortality rates even in protected areas such as Yellowstone National Park, the Grizzly Bear was listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. As of June 2017, however, that listing was revoked for the populations in and around Yellowstone National Park due to the Bear’s remarkable recovery from a mere 136 individuals in 1975 to approximately 700 today. It seems we have begun to amend our relationship with these animals; but there is more to be done in the interest of Grizzly Bears. Several recovery and reintroduction plans are currently being considered, and reflect a brighter future for Grizzly Bears in the lower 48. But, what about here in Utah?

Forest Service Marker Old Ephriam's Grave Courtesy & Copyright Josh boling
Forest Service Marker
Old Ephriam’s Grave
Courtesy & Copyright Josh boling
The Great Bear’s return to the Beehive state is entirely possible but, as the Ogden Standard Examiner reported early last year, not very likely. “Although grizzlies are established in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming,” the article states, “Utah is not a part of the government’s recovery plan for the animal.” There are probably many reasons for this, not least of which is the relatively high population densities adjacent to the best of Utah’s potential Grizzly habitat. Right now, there are just too many people for the bears to be able to ramble unimpeded by the things and interests of humans. “But that’s not to say that some rogue bear might not roam across state lines one day,” states the Standard’s article.

I, for one, hope they make their way back.

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

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright 2017 Josh Boling
Text: Josh Boling

Sources & Additional Reading

The Bear Facts Old Ephriam, Holly Strand, June 17, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/the-bear-facts-old-ephriam/

Old Ephriam, Utah State University, University Libraries, Digital Collections, http://digital.lib.usu.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/Ephraim

Old Ephraim: Utah’s most legendary bear, Lynn Arave, Standard Examiner, July 16, 2015, http://www.standard.net/Ogden-Area-History-Bin/2015/07/16/July-17-history-bin

Final resting spot of legendary grizzly ‘Old Ephraim’ worth a trip, Kate DuHadway, Herald Journal, Jul 9, 2011, http://news.hjnews.com/news/final-resting-spot-of-legendary-grizzly-old-ephraim-worth-a/article_0e974452-a9d3-11e0-8c09-001cc4c002e0.html