Screen play: Endangered fish nursery reaches key milestone

Chris Brown of The Nature Conservancy helps maneuver a screen to a concrete structure that will provide a gateway to a nursery for the endangered razorback sucker Tuesday morning, Sept. 10 at the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve. Photo by Doug McMurdo

A combined effort to provide a safe breeding habitat for the endangered razorback sucker hit a significant milestone this week when gates and screens were installed at the site inside the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve.

The gates and screens at the nursery were attached to a previously poured concrete structure that will keep out larger predatory fish. The gates can open and the screens can be lifted at the site. The Utah Department of Wildlife Resources manages half of the Matheson Preserve and The Nature Conservancy manages the other half, and the entities often collaborate on projects.

On Tuesday, Sept. 10, Linda Whitham of The Nature Conservancy and Nicole Nielson, a restoration biologist with DWR, were on scene for the installation and both were excited to reach what amounts to the end of phase 2 of the three-phase, $1 million project.

Nielson said the gates and screens would keep out larger predatory fish – most that are invasive species such as bass and catfish – so the razorback can grow in the calm, freshwater eddy that has been built.

The need for the nursery is obvious due to degradation of the Colorado River in the face of climate change and human activity on the river. In addition to the razorback sucker, other endangered native fish that could benefit from the nursery include the humpback chub, the Colorado pike minnow and the bonytail, as well as wildlife that aren’t threatened.

Essentially, the screens and gates will open with the spring runoff and remain that way until the fall, when they are opened to allow the fish to enter the river at a large enough size to survive on their own.

“This will also increase the wetland and wildlife habitat,” said Nielson, both that have been severely stressed by sustained drought that has “changed everything.”

Crews install a screen designed to help provide the razorback sucker access to a safe breeding habitat at the wetlands preserve on Tuesday morning. Photo by Doug McMurdo

“This is the glamorous side of what we do,” said Whitham with a smile. There are complaints about beavers doing what beavers do, illegal camping, and three “gigantic fires” over four years that did about $1 million in damage and raised alarms at the preserve as well as with residents in town.

The fires prompted the creation of fire plans and exit strategies. Nielson said the ongoing drought means the wetlands are not as wet as they used to be, while at the same time more visitors are touring the preserve. She said a prescribed burn is under consideration for “a couple years down the road,” which will not only get rid of troublesome bulrush but also reduce mosquito habitat.

So what’s ahead? Phase 3 includes a plan to finish dredging the pond that will be the nursery; work on pumping water from a source the UDWR has rights to in order to keep fresh water in the pond, and a “continued focus” on finding funding.

As things stand as of this moment, the nursery is operational, but it must get bigger in order to help the razorback sucker thrive. Phases 1 and 2 cost an estimated $600,000 while phase 3 is about $350,000.

Whitham, who has been with The Nature Conservancy in the Moab area for nearly 20 years, thanked the groups that have donated that funding, primarily the Endangered Species Mitigation Fund, which has provided three grants in recent years. “They’ve been awesome,” she said. Other donations came from the Watershed Restoration Initiative, the Colorado River Recovery Program and the Enterprise Foundation. State Sovereign Lands has also pitched in and The Nature Conservancy has added $130,000.

Whitham and Nielson agree about $200,000 is needed to finish the project, and they are not worried. “I feel like we get so much support,” said Whitham, who appreciates the groups and organizations that spend time and treasure to help to counteract behavior that threatens fish and wildlife. “That’s why we want to get the word out. It’s very important to take care of our backyard.”