Veterans Work With U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Study Sensitive,
Native Fish Populations in Plains and Prairie Pothole Region
Graduate Student David Dockery observes swimming behavior of sauger in a pilot study. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
By Joanna Gilkeson
Land changes have greatly altered the connectivity of riparian areas and present significant challenges to the health of our nation’s fish communities. The effects of aquatic barriers including culverts, irrigation, diversions and dams, can be exacerbated by climate change and other landscape stressors, creating poor habitat conditions for fish.
Understanding how to better manage aquatic systems is critical to maintaining healthy populations. This is why cutting-edge fish passage research is being headed up by a partnership between the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University (MSU) and the Bozeman Fish Technology Center (BFTC) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service).
This research is especially critical as it may have important implications for imperiled species including the pallid sturgeon, a federally endangered species, and the sauger, a species of concern in Montana, as well as native fish populations in general.
Partial funding for this groundbreaking research comes from The Plains and Prairie Pothole Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC). The Plains and Prairie Pothole LCC is dedicated to the conservation of landscape unparalleled in importance to a vast array of unique species whose populations are in steep decline. This LCC geographically conjoins the Service's Regions 3 and 6, including the states of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming, as well as portions of Canada.
"The goal of this research is to improve fish passage and landscape connectivity for native and sensitive species. Some of the ground work for this study has been done, but nothing to this extent," said David Dockery, a graduate student at Montana State University studying fisheries and wildlife.Dockery is Montana-native, which inspires his dedication to this project, "I love Montana, and I've been here my whole life. I’m very invested in Montana and restoring this area’s aquatic populations."
Under the direction of Service Fish Biologist Kevin Kappenman, Dockery works as a research assistant, where he plays a key role in developing studies to improve our understanding of native fish species. Leading this research effort, in collaboration with Kappenman, are Professor Thomas E. McMahon of MSU, and Matt Blank of the Western Transportation Institute and Civil Engineering Department.
Dockery's research focuses on the swimming abilities of sauger. "The hope of this study is to better understand fish swimming capabilities. Some of these species are threatened because they can’t get through fish barriers. This research has important implications for managers in terms of improving fish habitat connectivity," Dockery said.
Understanding how fish swim in various conditions can help managers improve fish passage design when building or retrofitting fish passages to improve habitat conditions for swimming saugers and other native species. "Professor McMahon has been critical in developing the ideas behind this research because he specializes in fish habitat and fragmentation," Dockery said. "We identified studies to fill the gaps in fish swimming capabilities in order to improve the design and building of fish passages."
Chris Forrest, while serving in the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy photo)
Working alongside Dockery at the BFTC are two interns with unique perspectives on fisheries and wildlife conservation, Chris Forrest and Michael Stein. Forrest and Stein are veterans of the U.S. military. Forrest was a U.S. Navy Seal for seven years and Stein was a Black Hawk pilot for the U.S. Army for 10 years. After their time with the U.S. Armed Forces, both Forrest and Stein have dramatically shifted the focus of their careers to pursue their interests in fisheries and environmental conservation.
Forrest worked as a biological technician this past summer assisting Dockery with his research project. Forrest's experience in the Navy allows him to have a unique outlook on wildlife conservation. After his time in the Navy, Forrest decided to reconnect with his love of fishing and interest in the aquatic world. "Having the opportunity to go back to school and study fish and wildlife management and work with the Service has been rewarding. I’m part of the solution to protecting land and water for future generations and minimizing anthropogenic effects that we have upon the land," Forrest said. "This data is cutting edge science and it’s exciting to be on a project with a management and stewardship goal."
Stein has spent the last two summers working as a research assistant with Kappenman’s "spawning sturgeon in an artificial river" project at the BFTC. The sturgeon project takes place in an artificial river that is set up inside the BFTC. The stream mimics natural stream conditions, and these conditions can be manipulated within reason. The species of focus is the shovelnose sturgeon. Also working on this project, along with Stein and Kappenman, are co-principle investigators Service Dr. Molly Webb and Dr. Chris Guy, U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Research Unit at MSU, who are studying sturgeon behavior and habitat associated with spawning.
Stein has been interested in fish his whole life, "I've always had two passions in life, flying and fishing." He conquered the first passion while in the Army, but after 10 years was ready to pursue his other passion, fishing. Stein is now a student in the Fish and Wildlife Management Program at MSU. Stein's distinctive background as a Black Hawk pilot provides him with a unique perspective on conservation issues and the Service. "Working on broader issues like this is a no brainer. I've always been environmentally aware and have moved all over and experienced a broader sense of how connected everything is," he said.
As a pilot, Stein spent time in Alaska and Korea. He brings a different set of skills and life experience to the table, and now has acquired a new set of skills in fisheries research and conservation. "I have a deep sense of responsibility and I am able to accomplish a mission and get it done. At the research center, it's interesting to see how things come to together. It requires many talents. This experience has provided me with a firsthand look at broad teamwork and exposure to fisheries management. It's the whole package," Stein said.
Stein works on just about anything related to the living stream. His main responsibilities include collecting fish on the Missouri River, data analysis, video review and fish spawning analysis. As part of his duties, Stein regularly observes sturgeon behavior. "The hope is that observations of the shovelnose sturgeon can assist with the management of the endangered pallid sturgeon," said Stein.
The decline of this species is attributed to the negative impacts of anthropogenic activities on riverine habitat. Much of the pallid sturgeon's historic habitat has been altered resulting in deep, uniform channels, which are unfavorable for the species. In addition, downstream dams have altered the river's hydrograph, temperature, and turbidity. The goal of this study is to better understand what challenges sturgeon face and what conditions are needed to promote spawning and recruitment.
"I hope that this research sparks further research because there is a huge potential to have a broad impact on sturgeon, in particular the pallid sturgeon. This research has been effective at piecing together the puzzle," Stein said.
The results of these studies will help improve our overall understanding of fish swimming capabilities and the preferred habitat conditions of native fish species by filling in the missing information gaps, which can then be tangibly translated into effective conservation strategies.
In addition to funding from the Plains and Prairie Pothole LCC, this research is also supported by other important partners including the Region 6 Fish Passage Program and the U.S. Geological Survey Science Support Partnership.