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Utah News

Utah's Rarest Fish Could Become a Sport Fish With Time

matt_breen_4-2015_adult_bonytail_Green_River.jpg
Matt Breen
/
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Adult bonytail are the rarest species of fish in Utah and they've started reproducing again.

Utah biologists were doing a study to recover razorback sucker last year in the Upper Colorado River, when, to their surprise, they discovered 19 individual bonytail chub in the Stewart Lake near Jensen. The bonytail are now rearing their young. 

The bonytail are the rarest species of fish in Utah, according to Krissy Wilson, the native aquatic species coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Utah's representative on the biology committee for the Upper Colorado River Recovery Program.  

“What we’ve determined from this past year is when we stock bonytail that have been reared in hatcheries, they need to go into these backwater habitats, these wetlands, because if we put them in there, they’ll spawn,” she said.

The best way to recover this species is to put them into their appropriate habitat — floodplain backwaters — so they have the ability to spawn and survive, but removing the bonytail from the endangered species list can take a few years, Wilson said. The habitats of the bonytail are vulnerable to drainage, pollution and degradation from cattle.

“The fish we now rear in the hatchery all come from 12 parents, given they were so rare in the wild we didn’t know a lot about what they needed as far as habitat," Wilson said.

Four thousand four hundred adult bonytail are needed for the species to be removed from the endangered classification, but the current number of wild adults is unknown. The fact that infants are being reared is the first promising sign that the fish has the potential to be recovered. The goal now is to provide flows that mimic those prior to the 1980s before the fish became endangered and remove any threats to their recovery from the Upper Colorado River System.

"We’re looking at providing flows to make sure that the flows mimic what was there historically because that’s what fish tune into," Wilson said. "They spawn on either the ascending or the descending hydrograph, so we’re providing flows, we’re working on making sure we have sufficient habitat.”

The biggest threats are burbot, walleye, small mouth bass and northern pike, which are required to be killed if caught, because they stymie the reproduction of the bonytail. None of these fish are native to Utah, as the bonytail is.

Tom Czapla, a coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program says the program is going to continue to place the bonytail into floodplains to rear them without disruption over the next few years.

“There are several floodplains that we use, but Stewart Lake near Jensen is the one we can generally manipulate the best," Czapla said. "It was used primarily for razorback but hopefully now we can move towards bonytail.”

Bonytail can grow up to two feet long, so if they reach full recovery and are removed from the endangered species list, they can become a sport fish. Having the bonytail as a sport fish will increase opportunities for anglers across Utah to catch a native fish, but it all depends if the bonytail can maintain their habitat, health and continue to raise their young.