NANFA-- razorback sucker story

Christopher Scharpf (
Sat, 27 Jan 2001 08:46:10 -0400

Fish Tales
No. 6 January, 2001

134 Union Blvd., Lakewood, CO 80228
Contacts: Karen Miranda Gleason 303-236-7917, x431

Debbie Felker (303) 969-7322 x227

Tom Pruitt (801) 789-4078

A Pre-Historic Fish Struggles to Survive
in the Modern World

The razorback sucker hasn't had it easy.

It once was so plentiful in the Colorado River Basin -- where it evolved
and the only place on Earth it is found -- that farmers harvested the fish
to grind it into livestock food or fertilizer. Later, its river channels
were altered, stream flows were changed, dams were built, pollution
increased and its habitat was badly fragmented. Over the years, 40 new fish
species were introduced into its Colorado River home, transforming a placid
existence into one of fierce competition. Razorbacks that did survive wound
up literally being eaten alive. The future looked grim; by 1991, to no
one's surprise, the fish officially became an endangered species.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's and its partners didn't give up.
For years, biologists have put in long days and longer hours, trying to
find a way for the razorback sucker to come back into its own. Their
efforts were met largely with discouragement and frustration.

And when they recently discovered the fish spawning again in the wild, they
were ecstatic: some of the spawning razorbacks were hatchery-bred, and they
were returning to a favored habitat, in the wild. On their own. Plus, they
were mingling with the few wild razorbacks still out there.

"To say we were excited is a considerable understatement," said Tom Pruitt,
manager of the Ouray National Fish Hatchery in Vernal, Utah. "We're
absolutely convinced that this is the breakthrough we've been waiting for.
These fish are a long way from being out of harm's way. But it's a
significant beginning. I can hardly begin to tell you how significant."

Ouray National Fish Hatchery, part of the Service's Fisheries Program, was
established in 1996 to provide refugia, propagation, and technical
development to assist in the recovery of the four endangered Colorado River
fish: razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail, and humpbacked chub.
Hatchery facilities include rearing ponds, solar conditioning reservoir,
fish culture building, well field, and an ozone water treatment facility.

The razorback's survival is also supported by the Vernal Colorado River
Fishery Project office, also part of the Service's Fisheries Program. This
office assesses impacts of water development projects on endemic fish
species of the Upper Colorado River system, including the middle Green,
White, Duchesne, and Yampa Rivers. Species include the endangered Colorado
pikeminnow, bonytail, humpback chub, and razorback sucker. Project
activities include Basin-wide monitoring programs for the endangered fishes
and their habitats, management-oriented research activities, instream flow
assessments and recommendations, database management and data analyses, and
experimental population augmentation and restoration programs.

Several thousand older razorbacks still spawn in Lake Mohave, but few of
their offspring survive. If eggs are not eaten by predators, those that
become young razorbacks in turn become meals for sunfish and other species.

A similar fate had befallen razorbacks in the Green River, a Colorado
tributary, over the years, but Pruitt said considerable work helped to
finally turn the tide ? corrective measures that included removing predator
fish, working to curb pollution and changing water flows all are making a
marked difference.

Since 1994, the Service's Fisheries Program has stocked at least 10,000
razorbacks when they attained a length of between 6 and 16 inches. The
improved conditions allowed enough of those hatchery fish to survive to
begin mingling with the estimated 300 wild razorbacks. Eventually, a
sizeable number headed back to the Escalante bar in the Green River, and
last May, Service biologists confirmed the spawning.

"The whole point here is not to keep stocking the river or the tributaries
with razorback," said Pruitt. "The point is to give the fish a chance to
build its own self-sustaining population. If we can achieve that, we can
pull this species off the endangered species list and apply what we've
learned to other native fish that are in trouble. We want to get far enough
ahead of the curve that we can avoid listings altogether. What we're seeing
now with the razorbacks is extremely promising. This is solid progress."

It's also a success story that points to the importance of wetlands: one of
the fish found on the spawning bar had been stocked in a wetland a year
before. The female had remained there until she knew it was time to head
far downriver. "Without those wetlands, you wouldn't have this story," said
Pruitt. "The functions wetlands provide and the life they support is
staggering. And this is one more example."

The razorback sucker -- Xyrauchen taxanus -- is a swimming fossil, a fish
that has been around for nearly a million years. It can weigh up to 12 to
14 pounds, attain a length of two to three feet and can live for 40 years.
It has an unusual body shape ? a keel-edged, bony hump on the back that
rises immediately behind the head ? the result of an evolutionary dance
with the raging Colorado River, which suits it well for its life on the
bottom. Native Americans and early settlers braved the razorback's bones to
make a meal. Likewise for river families during the Depression of the
1930s, and old timers still tell tales of filling gunnysacks with

"This is a species has been here since before people arrived," said Pruitt.
It's survived all the ravages of nature and all the abuse of humans, all
the wars, all the pioneers ? you name it. It's part of the heritage of this
entire hemisphere."

The plight of the razorback, and the determination to help the species
attain sustainability, is considered important enough that a total of 15
Federal, State and private agencies and organizations have signed on to
participate in the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
Besides the Service, partners include the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation,
Western Area Power Administration, National Park Service, the States of
Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon
Society, Colorado Wildlife Federation, Wyoming Wildlife Federation,
Colorado Water Congress, Utah Water Users Association, Wyoming Water
Development Association and the Colorado River Energy Distributors

"We're 'jump-starting' a fish population," said Pruitt. "And for the first
time, we feel like we're swimming upstream."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency
responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and
plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American
people. The Service manages the 93 million acre National Wildlife Refuge
System which encompasses more than 530 national wildlife refuges, thousands
of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 66
national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource

offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces
Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages
migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries,
conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps state,
tribal, and foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also
oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of
dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and
wildlife agencies.

For more information on the razorback chub and other endangered fish of the
Upper Colorado River, visit For more
information on the Mountain-Prairie Region Fisheries Program, visit

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