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/

Piute Farms Waterfall on Lower San Juan – a Tributary of Lake Powell

Piute Farms Waterfall on the San Juan River, An Example of Superimposition Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Piute Farms Waterfall on the San Juan River, An Example of Superimposition
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Piute Farms waterfall is a 25-ft high cascade that has formed along the San Juan River and spans its entire width. The location is a remote spot in an upstream arm of Lake Powell reservoir.

To reach the falls it takes a rough two-hour drive from Mexican Hat, or a 100-mile-boat ride from Bullfrog Marina in Lake Powell.

It formed when the tributary re-routed itself, cut through a thick layer of sediment, and began flowing over a bedrock cliff.

Scientists call this phenomenon superimposition.

Jack Schmidt, Janet Quinney Lawson Chair of Colorado River Studies in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU explains, “When reservoirs are created by the construction of dams, the sediment load of inflowing rivers is deposited in the most upstream part of the reservoir. In Lake Powell…the deposits in the…San Juan arm of the reservoir are as much as 80ft thick.”

“[If} reservoirs…drop…the inflowing rivers erode into the accumulated sediment. There is no guarantee the location of the new channel will be in the same place as…the original channel.”

The San Juan River’s original route was buried under the thick layer of sediment. The river’s response was to form a new channel one mile south of the original route and over the ridge.

Schmidt continues, “A [similar] thing…happened in Lake Mead reservoir where an unrunnable rapid formed near Pearce Ferry where the new Colorado River flows over a lip… [of] consolidated sediment. Although not a vertical waterfall, Pearce Ferry Rapid is sometimes more dangerous to boating than any rapid in the Grand Canyon!”

With future droughts, we can expect reservoirs to be at low levels for extended periods, and superimposition will continue to occur forming additional waterfalls and obstructions. Managers monitor the positive and negative effects of these changes.

One impact of the Piute Farms waterfall is a novel subpopulation of endangered razorback suckers which are now blocked from swimming upstream to spawn.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Zach Ahrens, Native Aquatics Biologist at Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and graduate student at USU says, “The razorback and other native fishes in the Colorado River basin have evolved over millions of years to play their roles in spite of the extremes of temperature and flow in their riverine environment. Given the uncertainty of future climate and water resources…it’s important to do what we can to ensure their continued survival.”

Before the waterfall formed, managers were not sure what percentage of razorback suckers travelled this far upstream.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Mark McKinstry, Biological Scientist from the Bureau of Reclamation, explains, “It took perseverance, technology, and dedication of a lot of different folks to find where…the Razorbacks are and understand the fish’s life history strategy.”

Peter MacKinnon with the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University and Biomark Inc. provided the technical expertise to set up a method to insert Razorback suckers with pit tags (similar to those used in cats and dogs) then track them with antennas placed below the falls.

With this tracking method, managers and researchers identified more than 1000 razorback suckers below the falls, apparently trying to ascend the waterfall. Approximately 2000-4000 suckers live in the San Juan River. It is estimated about 25% of the razorbacks are unable to spawn – because the waterfall blocks fish passage. This could influence the population of the endangered fish.

The Bureau of Reclamation consulted with experts on how to help razorback suckers get past the waterfall so they can move upstream and spawn. The most feasible suggestion seems to be, to build a naturalized fish passage around the side of the waterfall. Managers and volunteers would build a trap location on the upstream side of the passage where fish moving upstream could be captured; volunteers could then release the captured razorbacks and other native fish upstream where they choose to spawn.

Phaedra Budy, professor in the Watershed Sciences Department and Unit Leader for U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit said, “The Razorback sucker has intrinsic value to the San Juan River and beyond, is a critical member of the ecosystem, and deserves every effort for recovery.”

Managers and researchers hope their information gained and recovery efforts will give the endangered razorback suckers an increased chance for survival in its changing environment.

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

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mark McKinstry
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, Sound provided by The National Park Service, licensed under CCA-ND
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Waterfall Still Blocks San Juan River, River Runners for Wilderness(RRFW), https://rrfw.org/riverwire/waterfall-still-blocks-san-juan-river

https://www.americansouthwest.net/utah/monument_valley/piute_farms.html

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/

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