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DWR hopes release of unique fish at Utah Lake will help them thrive

AMERICAN FORK — Nathan and Natalie Smith and their family had a rare opportunity Monday to see and touch an endangered fish so unique that Utah Lake is the only place in the world where it's found.

They were fishing on the jetty at the American Fork Boat Harbor when a Division of Wildlife Resources truck pulled up to release 1,000 hatchery-raised foot-long June suckers into the murky lake.

"It was really cool," said Nathan Smith, who has fished at the lake for more than 10 years. "I've always heard about the June sucker and heard about the program, but I've never actually seen one, so it was a cool experience."

Natalie Smith's 12-year-old brother, Christian Hill, touched one of the brownish gray fish before DWR biologists put it in the water, saying it was "kind of rough."

June suckers have had a rough go since being the most plentiful fish in Utah Lake that sustained Native Americans and that Mormon pioneers used to pay tithing.

"It's an important part of the history of Utah Valley," said Dale Fonken, a DWR native aquatics biologist. "It's also an important part of the ecosystem.

Introduced species such as carp and walleye, pollution, turbidity, drought, altered waters flow and loss of native vegetation threatened June suckers with extinction. Down to about 300 wild fish in 1986, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services listed it as an endangered species.

The state's June sucker recovery program has brought up the population to several thousand over the years, though the wildlife division doesn't know for sure how many exist today. The division pumped about 2,000 more into the lake Monday with another 1,000 to follow Tuesday.

And there's talk of the federal government downlisting the fish from endangered to threatened.

"There's always a lot of things that they have to overcome, but they've come a long way," said Keith Lawrence, a DWR native aquatics biologist, watching the newly freed June suckers jump and play in their new environment.

The state has put $300,000 a year into the recovery project since 1998, said Chris Keleher, Utah Department of Natural Resources recovery programs director. The state Legisature has spent $1.8 million over the years on carp removal to benefit the June sucker. Federal agencies and local water districts also contribute to the program, he said.

The fish released Monday were raised at the DWR's fisheries experiment station in Logan the past two years. Fishery managers have founding stocking the lake with larger June suckers gives them a better chance to survive.

Each one has a microchip that allows biologists to track them as they pass scanners in the Provo River, Hobble Creek and the Spanish Fork River as they swim upstream to spawn, typically in June. Two years ago, wildlife managers counted more than 2,260 tagged adult fish returning to spawn in the Provo River.

"Hopefully, we'll have the species recovered very soon, but it's definitely a long-term project," Fonken said.

Another 15,000 to 17,000 fish being raised in the DWR hatchery could be transplanted in the lake in the future, Lawrence said.

The June sucker is one of the few species of suckers that is not a bottom feeder. It feeds on mid-water plankton. They find themselves between predatory walleye, northern pike and white bass and bottom-feeding carp.

"They kind of fill that niche in the middle of the food chain, so without the June sucker, you'd start to see some of those top predators decline," Fonken said, adding the popular sport fish need a food source.

"If you like fishing for walleye and white bass, you should really like the June sucker. The better they do, the better the fishing is going to be."