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The gray-brown, foot-and-a-half long June sucker fish exists in only one place in the world: Utah Lake. At one point, due to habitat loss and an invasive fish species, there were only around a thousand of the fish left. But now the population is recovering, thanks to a $50 million delta restoration near Utah Lake.
The fish live in Utah Lake, but their main spawning site is within the Provo River and the surrounding wetlands. The Provo River Delta Restoration Project aims to reestablish this ecosystem and because of its efforts there were 4,300 tracker-tagged fish spawning in Provo River this year, a number that probably represents 10-20% of the total population.
It’s a far cry from the population’s low of 1,000 in 1986, when it was listed as endangered species.
Scientists are hopeful the population could rebound even further as the restoration project brings back the sucker’s historic habitat.
Making water flow in the delta again
The Provo River used to fan out into multiple tributaries and grassy wetlands before meeting Utah Lake, but as the area was drained, cleared and dammed over the years — making way for roads and an airport. Without the marshlands and the small ponds, the sucker’s rearing habitat was diminished and young larval fish weren’t able to reach the lake.
The restoration project is lowering the Skipper Bay dike to bring back the meandering creeks used by the sucker. Restoring the natural streams will provide a new recreational space for the community and improve water quality. It’s the result of a 19-year partnership from the Utah Reclamation, Mitigation and Conservation commission; U.S. Department of Interior and the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program, among other agencies, as a part of the Central Utah Project.
“The Provo River has a lot of water rights — people take water out of the river for their crops, and their homes and things like that,” said W. Russ Findlay, program coordinator with the U.S. Department of Interior’s Central Utah Program Completion Act Office. “So for quite a few years, there was very little water in the Provo river, down through town and out through [the project area].”
Through the Department’s funding of water conservation projects, it’s been able to conserve water to reroute it to the new tributaries, Findlay said.
“There are a lot of problems that led to the fish’s decline originally, but the water use was one of them, and I think that was kind of the trigger that put it on the endangered species list,” said Melissa Stamp, project coordinator for the Utah Reclamation, Mitigation and Conservation commission.
Shortly after it was listed as an endangered species, a few of the remaining June suckers in Utah Lake were captured and transported to a hatchery in Logan where they were bred in captivity. Since the early 1990s, thousands of June sucker from the Logan hatchery have been stocked into Utah Lake, resulting in a steadily increasing adult population.
With increasing the population, the project has had to make sure the sucker’s Utah Lake habitat could sustain the fish.
One of the most critical actions for restoring the sucker’s habitat has been removing invasive carp fish, which destroy the lake’s underwater plants. If left unchecked, carp would overwhelm the sucker and make the lake muddy.
“[Carp are] the feral hogs of the water,” said Russ Franklin, local coordinator for the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program. Franklin explains the carp devour plants in the lake that are critical to the ecosystem. “They call [the vegetation] macrophytes, which are underwater plants. That’s what we need; it helps not only the ecosystem as far as oxygen and other things, but also soil stability. You don’t think you need soil stability inside a lake, but the macrophytes act like bunch grasses and everything else to keep erosion and [cloudy] water from happening.”
In the early 2000s, carp represented an “overwhelming 91 percent of the total fish biomass in Utah Lake,” according to a report from the June Sucker Recovery Implementation program.
Combating habitat-destroying carp is a big, time-consuming job. A private fishing company was hired to net net and manually handle every fish — tossing it back into the lake if it is a non-invasive fish like the June sucker. With these efforts, more than 29 million pounds of carp have been removed from Utah Lake.
The fish that fed the pioneers
The June sucker is not cute and cuddly, but it is an important species to Utah Lake and the Provo River.
“[The June sucker is] called an indicator species,” Franklin said. “They are basically your thermometer — which is bad because that means they’re more susceptible to any changes. So as the June sucker does better, what it points out is that the ecosystem’s going back to the way it should be naturally.”
Healthy June suckers benefit the entirety of Utah Lake, with the fish serving as a watchdog on the lake’s water quality, habitats and other conditions of the state’s largest natural freshwater body.
“Historically, suckers in [Utah Lake] were the major fish species in the lake,” Findlay said. “This area here was settled beginning in 1840, by pioneers, and when they first got here, they arrived in sort of quite a large group, and they had a failure in their crops that they tried to produce the first at least a couple of years. So those early settlers really relied on Utah Lake, the fishery, and June suckers to survive.”
The fish was downgraded from endangered to threatened in December 2020, meaning the June sucker is “no longer in danger of immediate extinction,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The June sucker is only the fifth fish species to be downgraded to threatened status since 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was signed into law.
“There’s been a lot of things with the development of human homes and businesses... A lot of degradation to the ecosystems,” Findlay said. “I think the people of Utah owe it to this species to create something for them.”
As the sucker returns, so do people
The Provo River Delta Restoration project will also include new boating opportunities, access points to reach the river and delta area on foot, an observation tower and bird watching and wildlife sighting areas. Paved trails and improvements to existing trail areas are also being constructed, in addition to an equestrian trail.
With more and more people getting outdoors across the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Franklin believes the area will be a big draw for the community.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of people trying to recreate down here with non-motorized stuff,” Franklin said. “Paddleboarders, kayakers, canoers. I think it’ll be impressive; I mean, if you see the trail and how many people [already] use the trail through here. I think you’ll see a lot of people riding, walking.”
A small dam is being constructed at the mouth of the old river channel to keep the water at a more constant level, along with aeration systems to clear out leaves and other materials that often get into the river. To aid with the carp problem, and give the June sucker some space, the project plans to hold some “creative fishing derbies” to remove some of the competition.
“We think there’ll be a great sport fishery here,” Stamp said. “[The area is] 200 acres of publicly available sport fish access.
Wildlife, like deer and pheasants, already make the area their home and managed hunting is also being considered for waterfowl.
“[People] are gonna benefit even if they never come down to the delta,” Franklin said. “There’s not a whole lot of freshwater lakes that are like this. So to manage this lake and help it out, it’s a daunting task… [The] June sucker will show us the changes better than anything else that we’ve been doing.”
Although 90 percent of the state is experiencing extreme drought, the project continues, Franklin said. With water levels lower, it’s easier to track the fish as they move across antennas placed in the river, but the June suckers have not seen much of a difference from previous years.
“The better success we have in recovering the June sucker, the more flexibility we have in managing water resources for the people as well,” Findlay said. “Everybody’s going to benefit from it.”