Mountain-Prairie Region


Feature News Release

No. 2 FEBRUARY, 2000
134 Union Blvd., Lakewood, CO 80228       

Contact: Mike Olson 701-250-4499
                Steve Krentz at 701-250-4419, or
                Jim Milligan at 573-876-1909 x102

Fish Tales: Good News About Native Fish

Rare Pallids Reproduce in the Wild

This feature news release is part of a series of "Fish Tales" communicating success stories about native fish conservation in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Mountain-Prairie Region, which includes the States of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Articles and images may be used and published freely, in whole or in part. Further information on this and other related topics can be obtained from the contact(s) listed above.

In a rare find, biologists have documented for the first time in more than 30 years the natural reproduction of endangered pallid sturgeon in the Missouri River -- evidence that this fish species may be on its way to recovery in the wild. 

 Service biologists collected several tiny sturgeon specimens near a restored backwater section of the river at Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge near Columbia, Missouri in August.  Recently completed laboratory analysis shows that one of the fish is definitely a pallid sturgeon and two others likely are.

Pallid sturgeon populations -- once found throughout the Missouri, Mississippi, and Yellowstone Rivers in 16 western, mid-west, and southeast states -- have been on a downward spiral since dams were built and their native habitat was altered. With its four whisker-like appendages that guide it across river bottoms, the pallid thrives only in shallow, silty waterways with sand and gravel bars.

A fish dating to prehistoric times, the pallid sturgeon can weigh more than 80 pounds and reach up to 6 feet in length. With rows of bony plates running from its shovel-nosed head to its reptile-like tail, this species has survived 70 millions year. Looking itself like a dinosaur, the pallid swam when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

"Until these were found in the wild, the only young pallid sturgeon we'd seen were products of spawning operations at hatcheries," said Steve Krentz, leader of the Pallid Sturgeon Recovery team based in Bismarck, N.D.

Fairly common as late as the 1950's and 1960's, the once-popular gamefish was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1990 after numbers dwindled in such pallid strongholds as North Dakota. Populations of the pallid are now so small that this big fish is rarely seen or caught by anglers.

In the early 1990's, the Service and its state partners began a hatchery reproduction program. Crews netted adult male and female fish in the wild, and brought them into hatcheries for artificial spawning. Some of the offspring from those operations were stocked into the Missouri River in the 1990's, but only to keep the species alive until habitat and flows could be restored.

"We know the fish found in Missouri are not the result of our stocking efforts," explained Krentz. "The juvenile fish we put into the river were eight or ten inches long, and the specimens collected in August were less than one inch long."

Biologists were delighted that the wild sturgeon were found in a restored reach of river. The find is evidence that habitat and flow restoration are key for pallid sturgeon recovery, according to Mike Olson, Missouri River coordinator for the Service.

"It wasn't as much of a surprise as it was confirmation of our beliefs," he said. "We firmly believed that this species just needed the right habitat and flow conditions."

Pallids evolved for millions of years in natural river systems with meandering, braided channels and backwaters that provided different depths and rates of flow -- unlike dammed and developed rivers and streams of today. With the help of Missouri River Basin states and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Service has been working to mimic those natural conditions so essential for the fish.

"This newest finding confirms that habitat in conjunction with more natural river flows is a successful combination for fish and wildlife recovery," added Olson.

Jim Milligan, project leader of the Service's Fishery Resource Office in Columbia, Missouri, whose staff actually collected the fish, concurred with Olson's observations.

"It's the old 'build it and they will come' philosophy," said Milligan. "Nature recreated suitable habitat with the higher river flows of the mid-1990's, and the pallids have found and are using that habitat."

All three believe the evidence of reproduction doesn't mean the species is out of trouble, but feel the discovery is an encouraging step forward.

If recovery efforts are successful, the fish could one day be removed from the Endangered Species list and once again become available for sportfishing. And as any veteran angler who has landed an 80-pound pallid can tell you, that can be exciting.

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 comprised of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management assistance 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 wildlife agencies.

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