On the eve of Endangered Species Day at a laboratory in Logan last week, Dale Fonken firmly gripped a June sucker fish with his left hand while holding a syringe with his right.
It took only a few seconds for the native aquatics biologist with Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources to use the instrument to insert a tracking tag into the fish’s belly. Then Fonken gently tossed it into a tub of water before it went back into a larger tank with other June suckers.
He and others with the agency repeated this process about 2,000 times on May 16 at the DWR’s Fisheries Experiment Station off of 200 North to prepare the fish to be released the next day in Utah Lake, just west of Provo.
“I’ve grown to love these fish,” Fonken said. “They’re very charismatic.”
Wildlife officials like Fonken have been concerned about the population of June suckers since 1986, ever since they were put on the endangered species list. Only in recent years have the fish been considered for a downgrading of that status, but Passive Integrated Transponder, or PIT, tags are still needed to track the steadily growing population of the fish.
Only found in Utah Lake and the Provo River, the June sucker is either brown or gray and has a white underbelly. The fish can grow up to 20 inches.
According to the DWR’s website, it’s not known exactly how the June sucker’s population dwindled to below 1,000 in the mid-’80s, but things like drought, water flow alterations and predators could have played a role.
Since that time, a multipronged effort spearheaded by the Utah Department of Natural Resources, which oversees DWR, has been led to get the June suckers back to healthy population levels. This effort has, for years, included the facility in Logan.
In an article posted by the agency online, Chris Keleher, DNR director of recovery programs, expressed frustration over the time it can take to restore wildlife populations.
“Once a species gets to the point that it’s endangered, it takes a huge effort and a lot of funding to get them back in shape,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to have partners who supported the effort, and we are getting there with the June sucker. Partnerships are the key to conservation effectiveness, and trust is the glue that holds partnerships together.”
Fonken said since 1986, the population has grown from approximately 300 spawning adults to approximately 2,400 spawning adults in 2016.
But Fonken does not see a time when there will be too many of the fish for the Provo River or Utah Lake to bear.
“The pioneers have stories of there being so many June suckers that you could walk across the river on their backs,” he said. “There were millions and millions of June suckers originally; we aren’t anywhere near that point.”
RAISING JUNE SUCKERS
Every May, officials from DWR come to the Fisheries Experiment Station in Logan to place PIT tags in June suckers.
The facility, tucked away behind trees to the north of Valley View Highway, opened in 1961, according to the DWR’s website. Its role has changed a few times over more than 55 years, but now its prime focus is research, fish health and fish culture, the website states.
Gary Howes is the hatchery’s manager. He oversees an operation at this facility which sees some 35,0000 June suckers go from conception to full growth of about 12 inches. When the fish are ready, they go down to Utah Lake, he said.
“We’re the only ones doing this,” Howes said. “These are endangered species … Our purpose here is to supplement those fish in the (Utah Lake).”
He estimates the Fisheries Experiment Station has raised approximately 850,000 June suckers.
“They do have their place in the food web,” Howes said. “They use energy and they provide energy for other animals to eat them.”
It’s debatable as to whether fish are better off being raised naturally or captively.
“These fish haven’t learned to avoid predators, a natural fish would have had to get that size (10-12 inches) by avoiding predators,” Howes said. “There’s trade offs to raising them here. … Really, we need both. We need captive fish and we need fish in the lake to reproduce to keep these fish from going extinct.”
Fonken noted that recently DWR has been raising the fish to be 12 inches before they’re released into Utah Lake as opposed to 8.
“The larger you raise them, the easier it is for them to escape predation,” he said.
Because the June suckers being put into Utah Lake from the lab are larger, “we’re seeing a lot more of these fish survive and complete their annual spawning run in Utah Lake and complete their life cycle,” Fonken said.
TRACKING AND TAGGING FISH
He said the fish recently tagged in Logan will not be of spawning age for another one to two years, so they won’t show up on the DWR’s tracking antennas until later.
“We have seen hundreds of fish show up from stockings 2-3 years ago, though,” Fonken wrote in an email to The Herald Journal. “The PIT tags last indefinitely. We still detect some PIT tags from 20 years ago in Utah Lake.”
When it comes to tagging June suckers, Fonken told the newspaper it can be a repetitive process.
“But it’s definitely worth it,” he said. “The information that we get from these tags is priceless.”