The Scott M. Matheson Preserve, a unique wetlands ecosystem rare for a desert like Moab, was teeming with life of a different sort, all focused on helping a vulnerable native fish.
A conservation team and construction crew on Dec. 11 plowed through soil adjacent to the Colorado River to deepen water channels and improve a fish nursery. Razorback suckers, Utah natives with a projectile hump and a bulbous snout, were once numerous in the Colorado River. They have been declining since the early 1970s. Nursery expansion efforts will assist critical larvae to maturity by reducing some of the negative impacts.
Currently the razorbacks’ small larval young are falling victim to habitat loss and unnatural predators. Large non-native fish species, such as carp and channel catfish, make an easy meal of sucker larvae. Deep-rooting invasive shrubs such as tamarisk disrupt waterways. Human development, including upstream water use and excessive drought, also add to the negative impact in the reproductive cycle of the four-million year-old fish.
“Our hope is that in May or June when the river is at its highest point we’ll see larvae coming in,” said Linda Whitham, the Central Canyonlands program manager for The Nature Conservancy.
Razorback suckers can reach three feet in length and can live up to 40 years. They spend most of their lives in deep dark water until they are ready to spawn. Once they reach sexual maturity they collect near channels and shallow warmer waters to benefit their offspring.
Razorback sucker larvae survive on algae and other microorganisms that shallow water with warmer temperature provides. The new, bigger channel will begin to divert more water to the nursery pond in a couple of months.
“Let’s hope for a lot of snow,” said Whitham, echoing what seems to be a popular phrase for many.
The Conservancy has been protecting wildlife habitat at the Matheson Preserve since acquiring it in 1990, one year before the sucker fish was officially added to the Endangered Species List. Almost 30 years later, fish biologists with Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources noticed a rise in sucker fish populations.
A few years earlier a previous incline was seen in Grand Canyon National Park. The encouraging numbers prompted more conservation efforts above restocking cultivated fish, a method that yields less success than natural spawning. There are a handful of programs devoted to bringing back suckers throughout the Colorado River Basin.
Due to those efforts, the endangered sucker fish might soon see its official status shift from Endangered to Threatened. The Conservancy and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife are currently working together with DWR biologist Katie Creighton, Jones and DeMille Engineering Project Manager Ryan Jolley, and DWR’s Nicole Nielson to oversea the nursery.
The project is estimated to take up to three years to complete and about $1 million. Whitham is tasked with locating funding. Aside from the construction she said. “Winter here is generally pretty quiet.”