Kaul: Update on Big Sandy River project

I have been monitoring a fish conservation project on the Big Sandy River for several years and have previously written a few articles on this subject. Over the past several weeks Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WG&F) has put boots on the ground to implement a plan created to save the flannelmouth, bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. As promised in my last article on this subject the following update is provided.

Let me start by providing some historical context for those who are not familiar with this Big Sandy River Three Species Treatment Project, or who have not read my previous articles on this issue. The Big Sandy River is a wonderful small stream that heads in the Jim Bridger Wilderness at Big Sandy Lake. It flows through the wilderness, Bridger-Teton National Forest and continues over a landscape of BLM, state and private lands. It is briefly held in captivity by the Big Sandy Reservoir and then empties into the Green River. This river, which supports agricultural and recreational interests, runs through the southeastern part of Sublette County. It is representative of a multitude of small streams and rivers that begin in the intermountain regions and feed the Colorado River system.

The impetus for Big Sandy Treatment Project can be traced back to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which created a bureaucratic agency at the federal level of government (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) whose charter is to look out for the welfare of all non-human indigenous creatures large and small. The suckers mentioned above are currently listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “least concern” and the roundtail chub was listed as “vulnerable.” These species, however, have been determined to be “species of greatest conservation need” by a collective body of fishery biologists and conservation groups representing several intermountain states, including Wyoming.

Surveys conducted by WG&F between 2002 and 2006 on Wyoming waters found a good number of flannelmouth suckers, but much fewer numbers of bluehead suckers and roundtail chubs. The conduct of these surveys, which formalized the presence of these species, led to the assumption that they must be indigenous to our waterways. I argue that just because we have these species in some of our waters, they may not necessarily meet the pure definition of indigenous or native. The question arises in my mind: Did they have their origins in Wyoming waters or did they arrive here from some other area? I offer the proposition that these fish could have traveled from their primary range in the lower part of the Colorado River Basin and found homes in the upper reaches before dams were placed on the rivers and streams. These colonies of fish adapted to the headwater environment, but were unable to propagate to the degree they did in their primary range; therefore, they have diminished in numbers by competition from fish better suited to this environment. A search on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website indicates the primary range for these species is in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Based on this information I would say that these habitats are better suited to their successful propagation.

My proposition outlined above was overwhelmed by the surveys and biological science offered by proponents of “save the sucker.” In 2016, shortly after they received grant money, the WG&F prepared the Big Sandy Three Species Treatment Plan, which was presented to concerned parties. The plan centered on extracting genetically pure flannelmouth and bluehead suckers along with any roundtail chubs and sport fish using electroshock equipment. All other non-native fish gathered during this operation were to be destroyed. After considerable discussion and negotiation a formal agreement was arranged and the dye was cast. Salvage operations produced large numbers of sport fish and native species of concern listed above which were stored in appropriate holding areas until treatment procedures were completed. These fish will be returned to the approximate areas where they were captured after WG&F personnel conduct a survey evaluating the effectiveness of the treatment process. If the treatment project is deemed successful, WG&F will stock 5,000 trout per year for four years to help re-establish a decent sport fishery.

Reviewing the history of these types of projects reveals the fact that there are a lot of variables that surface during the execution of the project and its aftermath. These variables promote questions such as the effectiveness of the treatment. Did the natural product rotenone, a pesticide poisonous to fish, do its job and kill all of the unwanted fish population in the treatment area? What will be the long-term effects on aquatic organisms that provide food for fish? How will the native and sport fish that are reintroduced to the river react to the new semi-sterile food environment? What will the game fish, who have been stressed in the salvage process, feed on through the fall and winter? These are some of the issues that will need to be addressed and analyzed as part of the treatment plan.

I want to go on record as supporting viable, common-sense conservation programs. I am hopeful that the Big Sandy Fish Conservation Project will meet the preservation goals and enhance sport fishing on this fine stream. The only way to determine if the project is a success is to be judicious in post-treatment surveys. If results are not good and miscalculations occurred, do not repeat them in the next project.