The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reporting that the Razorback Sucker (and the Humpback Chub) are proposed to have a change in status from endangered to threatened. Navajo fisheries, along with other biologists from the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Southern Ute, and Ute Mountain tribes have played a big part in the return of the Razorbacks.
Although these fish have a face that only a mother could love, there are lots of people and organizations — including the four Native American tribes — that have been working to ensure the continuing survival of the Razorback Sucker.
New Mexico Dept of Game and Fish biologist Matt Zeigler with a yearling Razorback Sucker Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Tom Chart, Director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program says they have been working to create an environment more friendly to the fish populations. “Our partners along the Colorado River have restored flow, created habitat, removed non-native predators, and re-established populations across the species range, which are key components to recovery.”
The Razorback Sucker, a unique-looking fish with a sharp-edged hump or ‘razorback’ behind its head, is one of the largest of the Sucker fish family that goes as far back as 5 million years. Feeding on insects, plankton, and plant matter, it can live up to 40 years and grow to 3 feet in length. Protected under Utah law since 1973, they were then classified as endangered under Colorado law in 1979 and then given full federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1991.
First documented in the Colorado River system in 1861, the population dwindled up until 30 years ago when the reported number of adults captured in a year could be counted on one hand. Today the estimated population is over 30,000 adults.
Thanks to propagation ponds on the Navajo Nation and coordination with other organizations, lots more are on the way.
“We’ve all be working toward the same goal and this year, for the first time in two decades, we’ve seen yearling Razorback Suckers, a good indication of a recovering population,” says Melissa Mata, Acting FWS Program Coordinator for the San Juan River Recovery Implementation Program.
The group’s combined efforts over the last 5 years have concluded the current risk of extinction is low enough that the species is no longer in danger of extinction.
“Without their input and operational involvement, a lot of this would not have happened,” says Mata.
“In 2018, we opened that passage to let fish move up freely and we ended up moving more fish in a two month period than we did in all previous years,” reports Mata. “We not only saw yearling fish, but we captured larval fish razorbacks 20 river miles further upstream than we ever have and a lot of that had to do with the Navajo Nation’s help in making sure the weir was kept free of blockage.”
Looking over the Razorbacks at the Navajo Nation fishery. Courtesy photo
While there are more questions that still need answers in documenting improvements in the wild, like where younger fish are hanging out and how to ensure that they will reproduce once they are of age, progress has been duly noted.
Although the stocked Razorbacks have few defense mechanisms that make them vulnerable to predation from toothed non-native fish, the stockers, according to Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Craig Springer, “will not only survive in the wild, but tend to migrate, colonize new areas, return to historic spawning bars, and produce viable young.”
“Our beginning role was to build a fish passage facility in the Nenahnezad Chapter of the San Juan River to facilitate movement of fish upriver to a spawning ground they could no longer reach,” says Jeff Cole, Navajo Nation Fish, and Wildlife biologist.
That progress will also be supplemented by pond reproduction at the Navajo Agriculture Products Industry (NAPI) farm ponds where Razorback Suckers are being raised. “Our program has grown quite a bit, doubled in capacity,” says Cole, adding that, “If all conditions are right, we can stock about 4,000 new fish per year.”
The successful efforts of restoring a fish that is neither a game fish nor a food fish can be looked at from both a pragmatic and a humanistic point of view.
“The question comes down to the fact that this is a species that is native to the basin,” says Mata. “If you look at the Razorback, morphology wise, it’s unique to this arid system and there’s a sense of pride in preserving an animal that’s been in the system for centuries, preserving something of nature that was here, to begin with.”
Cole’s take is a bit less esoteric. “While we all have a part to play in evolution, if fish like this are on the endangered list, they affect the Navajo Nation’s ability to do certain kinds of developments. Any kind of development we do, if it involves the water and habitat where endangered fish are found, we have to make sure we’re in compliance with not harming the species or the project won’t go forward. Because NAPI involves water rights settlement issues and the APS power plant, everything we develop has to go through a NEPA (National Environment Protection Act) process.
San Juan Recovery Program biologists at the San Juan River assessing the yearly amounts of Razorback Sucker. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
“It’s not necessarily a situation where you either sport fish or eat your catch or the fish are no good, right now they represent a roadblock to certain projects we’d like to do and if we can help get them off the list, not only can we assist in ensuring their survival, they’ll no longer be a barrier to some of our project plans.”
And while Razorbacks are capturing most of the fish restoration headlines, a population improvement because of the construction of the fish passage has also been noticed in the Colorado pikeminnow, the largest minnow in North America, a fellow evolutionary survivor also from millions of years ago.
Called ‘white salmon’ by early settlers, the 6-foot-long, as-large-as-80-pound fish readily struck lures and live bait and were popular early-day food items because their large size could readily feed entire families. Declared endangered in 1967, the pikeminnow was given full protection in 1973.
In a recent 5-year species status assessment and review, the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended revisions be incorporated in the recovery plan to ensure the actions will eventually allow the Service to completely de-list the Razorback Sucker from the endangered species list.