Fish and Aquatic Conservation


Form Follows Function
Research reveals habitat needs of sauger and sturgeon


Student-designed and student-built, this bridge at the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow Sanctuary near Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the product of a cooperative effort to engage, educate, and employ youth in conservation projects.
Captive shovelnose sturgeon are used as surrogates of the endangered pallid sturgeon so as to learn spawning habitat preferences. Credit: Kevin Kappenmann/USFWS



Form follows function, and that holds true for fish. Knowing how a fish's shape and size affects its ability to swim in various currents is essential to managing fish populations, and in particular, designing passage structures for streams. Gaining that essential knowledge is underway at the Bozeman Fish Technology Center in Montana, with the help of some very capable hired hands.

Streams most everywhere have been altered and fish populations have been segmented by culverts, dams, and diversions­—and fish numbers have suffered for it. Toward a remedy, cutting-edge fish passage research at the Fish Technology Center is plowing forward in a partnership with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University.

The research outcomes on two fronts may have important implications for imperiled species. One study is assessing the swimming abilities of sauger, a species of concern in Montana, and the longnose dace, a small minnow also native to the state. The second study is evaluating spawning conditions needed by shovelnose sturgeon. Those findings could offer clues about habitat conditions needed by the pallid sturgeon, a federally endangered species formerly found throughout the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Biological Technician, Chris Forrest, is at home around water. The former U.S. Navy Seal fully immersed himself in sturgeon and sauger research at the Bozeman Fish Technology Center. Credit: USFWS

"The goal of the swimming capability 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 pursuing a master's degree in fisheries and wildlife. Dockery is native to Montana, 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 Fish Technology Center biologist Kevin Kappenman, Dockery works as a Pathways Intern where he develops studies to improve the understanding of native fish species. Leading this research in collaboration with Kappenman are Montana State University professors Thomas E. McMahon and Matt Blank. McMahon teaches fisheries science and Blank, civil engineering.

According to Kappenman, studying the various fish body forms and sizes yields a greater understanding to accommodate a spectrum of native fish and meet their needs as they move through the water. "Each of these fish swims differently and prefers different conditions," said Kappenman, "and in evaluating several sizes of fish and various river sizes and scales, we can get a better feel for what kind of fish passages are needed across the board."

Pathways Intern and Montana State University graduate student, David Dockery, times a sauger’s swimming speeds through a flume.
Pathways Intern and Montana State University graduate student, David Dockery, times a sauger's swimming speeds through a flume. Credit: Kevin Kappenmann/USFWS

Brindled and barred, a sauger performs in a controlled-velocity flume. How fish perform at known velocities helps scientists and engineers design fish ways, bridges, and culverts.  

In the 2012 field season, Dockery focused on the swimming abilities of sauger. The sauger represents larger-bodied fish swimming in bigger rivers. This year he's concentrated on the longnose dace. The minnow represents small-bodied fishes that live in smaller rivers, and he's learning along with McMahon.

"Professor McMahon has been essential 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 to improve the test design and ultimately the building of fish passages."

Two additional interns worked alongside Kappenman and Dockery in 2012, each with a unique perspective on fisheries and wildlife conservation. Chris Forrest and Michael Stein were armed services veterans. One defended our country in the air, the other, on the water. Forrest was a U.S. Navy Seal for seven years while Stein piloted a Black Hawk helicopter in the U.S. Army for 10 years. After their service, both men dramatically shifted their careers to conservation.

Forrest, now a biological technician, assisted Dockery with his research. 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife 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 is cutting edge science and it's exciting to be on a project with a management and stewardship goal."

Stein assisted Kappenman with spawning shovelnose sturgeon in an artificial stream. Stein had been interested in fish his whole life: "I've always had two passions in life, flying and fishing." He conquered the first 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 Montana State University. "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," said Stein

The shovelnose sturgeon project Stein worked on takes place in an artificial river at the Fish Technology Center. The stream mimics natural conditions, and conditions can be manipulated to evoke responses from the fish.

The sauger, a very close kin to walleye, is a species of concern in Montana. Here, a sauger awaits being transferred to the open-channel flume. Credit: Kevin Kappenmann/USFWS
Kevin Kappenmann/USFWS

"I hope that observing the shovelnose sturgeon sparks further research. There is a huge potential for this to have a broad impact on sturgeon, in particular assisting with the management of the pallid sturgeon," Stein said. The Missouri and Mississippi rivers where pallid sturgeon naturally occurred have been turned into a series of lakes, very much affecting the fish. The rivers are deep uniform channels which are unfavorable for the species. In addition, downstream dams have altered the river's timing of flow, temperature, and sediment load. Observing shovelnose sturgeon as a surrogate to pallid sturgeon may tell biologists what's needed to promote spawning and recruitment.

The spawning study has made some promising headway, "we are getting a good idea of what kind of stream velocity sturgeon prefer and the type of stream bottom they like to spawn on," Kappenman said.

Form follows function, and what good form it is to have energetic people with bright minds focused on finding the function that all the vagaries of streamflow can have on fishes of such high ecological importance.

Last updated: January 13, 2014