Suckers for recovery

Students participate in endangered fish program with Division of Wildlife

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— Entering their sophomore year at Steamboat Springs High School, Abby Johnson, Matt Holthausen and Meghan McNamara had little, if any, interest in fish.

Yet there they were Tuesday, standing on the grassy banks of the Yampa River, handling one of Colorado's most endangered fish species, the razorback sucker, with the care and concern of doting mothers.

Tuesday's razorback sucker release was the culmination of an eight-month experiment sponsored by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Steamboat Springs High School and Soda Creek Elementary were two of 10 schools in western Colorado granted permits by the DOW to raise the endangered fish as part of an effort to increase the numbers of razorback suckers in Colorado rivers while simultaneously introducing students to conservation efforts and ecological principles, DOW education coordinator Stan Johnson said.

In groups of six, students from two of Cindy Gay's science classes delicately retrieved from a DOW holding tank the young razorback suckers they had raised from near infancy.

Fish by fish, students inserted sterile needles loaded with passive interactive transponders into the underbellies of the young fish. The process is painless for the fish, Johnson assured worried students.

With the PITs snugly in place under the skin of each razorback sucker, students measured the length of each fish before releasing it into a side channel of the Yampa River.

As the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program proceeds, captured razorback suckers will be scanned for the presence of PITs. The goal, Johnson said, is for the razorback sucker population to reach a point where biologists find few razorback suckers with PITs.

"We're hoping in the future we scan them and there's no chip," Johnson said. "That (will) mean they're spawning in the wild."

Johnson, who in September installed an aquarium in Gay's classroom before giving the class 12 young razorback suckers, led Tuesday's release. A Hayden High School class and Cindy Gantick's fifth-grade Soda Creek Elementary School class also participated in razorback sucker releases last week.

"When we started this program a couple years ago, it was doubted that students could handle it," Johnson told Gay's classes before the release. "I just want to say thank you and congratulations. I was very impressed with the mortality rate, which was zero, and the size of your fish."

Johnson, who had earlier in the day transferred the classes' fish into a holding tank, led the students down one of Carpenter Ranch's dirt roads to an open spot on the Yampa River.

There, in small groups, the students disinfected needles, recorded PIT identification numbers, injected the tiny PITs into each fish, recorded fish size and released them into the river.

And so ended the year-long "living" lesson for Gay's two classes.

From aquarium-water maintenance to twice-daily feedings, Gay said the razorback sucker program was a unique opportunity for her students.

"It was a real, hands-on local example for them to see abstract ecological principles in action," Gay said. The principles, such as food webs and zones of stress, took on new meaning for the students with the presence of the fish, Gay said.

"It was nice to have something in the classroom that you can relate to," student Meghan McNamara said. "It was really nice to have our school have the opportunity to do it and for the Division of Wildlife to give us the responsibility to do it."

There was little doubt as to the effect the program had on students as groups of them nervously awaited any sort of movement from the just-released fish Tuesday.

"They really cared about the well-being of the fish," Gay said. "They really cared about these (ecological) laws and principles because if they got it wrong, it meant dead fish. If it's wrong on a test, it's not such a big deal (to the students)."

Only time will tell what effect the fish release will have on the native razorback sucker population.

But in the meantime, dozens of students benefited from the program, Gay said.

"They feel like they made a difference in the ecosystem, and that's empowering," she said.

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