How a once-endangered fish is bouncing back and why it’s good news for Utah Lake

The June sucker’s recovery is an indicator of overall ecological health.

(Tribune file photo) In this June 20, 2012, photo, Chad Landress, a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, holds a June sucker in Utah.

Twenty years ago, June suckers were well on their way to oblivion due to Utahns’ use of Utah Lake as a place to dump pollution and stock with sport fish and other nonnatives.

Few noticed the disappearance of the June sucker, regarded as a trash fish, until it was almost too late.

A large-bodied, long-lived fish that serves as an indicator of overall ecological health, June suckers naturally occur only in Utah’s namesake lake and its tributaries where they had been unable to successfully spawn for decades because of historic channel dredging.

Today, though, these suckers are coming back in the wake of costly efforts to clean up the lake’s degraded habitat, rid its water of invasive carp, raise suckers at secure refuges and hatcheries, and restore a major delta that is hoped to once again serve as a safe nursery for young fish. Citing these improvements, the federal government last week announced it was officially downgrading the June sucker’s status from endangered to threatened, a move that relaxes the level of protection accorded this species and marks an important milestone in its recovery.

“Moving the June sucker from endangered to threatened would not have been possible without strong partnerships with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and other groups,” Noreen Walsh, regional director U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a prepared statement. “Collaborative conservation is the key to recovering endangered and threatened species, and we look forward to continued efforts to conserve this important indicator species.”

By the late 1990s, hardly 300 June suckers were known to inhabit the wild and none was successfully reproducing in native spawning grounds. Since then, their wild population has bounced back with more than 3,500 fish observed making annual spawning runs into the Provo River and Hobble Creek.

This rebound was made possible under a program initiated in 2001 aimed at improving habitat and reducing threats to the suckers’ survival. For several years, the DWR has raised June suckers in Red Butte Reservoir, the small lake above the University of Utah in a protected canyon. Each year, hundreds of these fish are netted and transplanted in Utah Lake to increase the breeding population.

“All of the program’s success has been achieved while also allowing for the continued water use and development of the area for human needs,” said Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Brian Steed. “This isn’t possible without the tremendous partnerships and trust that have been evident throughout this process. We’ve seen great success working collaboratively with our partners, and we look forward to seeing the June sucker removed from the threatened and endangered species list one day.”

The down listing, to be posted Monday on the Federal Register, acknowledged the June sucker is far from fully recovered and much work remains to fix Utah Lake, whose waters are sometimes afflicted with toxic algal blooms because of excessive nutrient loading and climate change.

Among the West’s largest freshwater bodies, Utah Lake once teemed with millions of June suckers — so named for the month they spawn — which served as an important food source for Native Americans and later were harvested for fertilizer by Mormon settlers.

Adult suckers grow to up to 24 inches in length and weigh 5 pounds. They can live up to 40 years. They swim up the Provo River and other Utah Lake tributaries to spawn. After hatching, the larval suckers drift down to the lake, but most die either en route or from lack of decent rearing habitat. Some wind up in the bellies of nonnative sport fish.

Decades ago, a deep channel was dredged through the Provo’s flood plain, directing the river’s flow into the lake and eliminating a biologically rich delta, where young suckers once found sanctuary in dense vegetation growing in braided channels. Now, few young fish even reach the lake because the river’s flow slows drastically when it enters the artificial channel.

But a fix is in the works at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. Federal authorities last year began work forging 300 acres of critical habitat where the Provo River meets Utah Lake. The Provo Delta Restoration project will remove dikes and construct a system of channels and ponds that will serve as a safe haven for larval suckers.

By spreading the river’s flow around a re-created delta, the young fish will be able to grow for two years, reaching a size of at least 8 inches. That way they can swim in the lake water without becoming an easy lunch for the introduced walleye and bass that have replaced the native fish.

Twelve nonnative fish species have established self-sustaining populations in the lake, including seven that eat other fish. As a result, June suckers face an array of predator species, including white bass, walleye, largemouth bass, black crappie, black bullhead, northern pike and channel catfish.

While not a predator, carp have posed a more significant threat to June suckers because of its ability to proliferate and dominate the ecosystem. Since 2009, crews have been hauling carp out of the lake by the ton in a successful effort to reduce their numbers. Researchers from Utah State University are assessing the effect of carp removal on the environment and June sucker survival.