One Tough Sucker

The razorback sucker evolved in a wild Colorado River. Now, humans are its biggest problem -- and its only hope.

  • An adult razorback sucker ready for release back into the wild at Lake Mohave after growing several years in captivity.

    Abraham Karam
  • A razorback sucker is released into Lake Mohave after spending more than three years in captivity. Each fish contains a microchip that gives its history.

    Abraham Karam
  • Biologists use underwater lights to attract, then capture, razorback sucker larvae along the shore of Lake Mohave.

    Abraham Karam
  • The larvae are reared in aquariums at Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery. After a few months, the fish are transfered to heated outdoor raceways where they will grow for three years before being returned to Lake Mohave.

    Abraham Karam
  • Lake Mohave, home to one of the largest and most genetically diverse populations of the endangered razorback sucker.

    Abraham Karam
  • Fish biologists check a trammel net during a fish survey at Lake Mohave.

    Abraham Karam
  • A group of non-native common carp wait to be fed by tourists at a boat dock on Lake Mohave. After their introduction in the 1880s, carp quickly established in the lower Colorado.

    Abraham Karam
 

Page 5

Those focused on the Upper Basin, meanwhile, tend to dismiss the Lower Basin efforts as futile, given that nothing approaching ecosystem-scale recovery can ever take place in what is essentially a system of reservoirs. While some environmental groups have participated in the various Lower Basin conservation initiatives, none of them have given the razorback sustained support. "The river had been so transformed that it was a question of what could possibly be accomplished there," said Dan Luecke, a hydrologist and longtime participant in Upper Basin efforts, recalling a long-ago decision by the group Environmental Defense not to join an early Lower Basin recovery program.

But to the Lower Basin's champions, the fact that adult razorbacks survived for years in Mohave is proof that the efforts remain worthwhile -- even imperative. Just because there are dams on the river, they say, is no reason to give up on native species that evolved there. Tom Dowling, the geneticist, recalls a talk he gave at a fisheries conference several years ago, after which an audience member asked why Dowling was worried about biodiversity if the presence of non-natives meant there were now more species living in the river than ever before. "He asked, ‘Isn't that a good thing?' " Dowling said. "I was like, ‘You're missing the point completely!' As conservation biologists, it's important to understand what the different units are and try to preserve them. They co-evolved with the system."

Minckley, who died in 2001, laid out his own conservation plan for the razorback and other endangered fishes in the lower Colorado, in a scientific paper published posthumously and co-authored by Marsh, Dowling and others. He called for a more ambitious series of "protected, off-channel habitats," free of exotic species, where the razorbacks and other natives could breed and grow big enough to survive in the lake. The plan envisioned a series of "excavated habitats" resembling the river's original floodplain and constructed to keep non-native fish out. Hatchery-raised razorbacks would spend an additional year or two in these ponds before being netted and transferred into the lake (or elsewhere on the river). Though there has been wide support for the concept, it has yet to be implemented on a large scale. "The wheels turn slowly," said Marsh.

But even if Minckley's plan were carried out exactly as he envisioned, the razorback's survival would remain entirely dependent on sustained human intervention. That is not "recovery," nor is it the original intent of the Endangered Species Act. Yet it's a situation faced not just by razorback suckers but by most endangered species in the United States -- and likely around the world. There is no way they will survive without constant management. One recent study noted that "conservation-reliant" species now make up about 85 percent of those listed under the ESA.

So is it worth the effort? Does it make sense to set ourselves up as perpetual caretakers, indefinitely footing the bill and bearing ultimate responsibility for these creatures' presence or absence from the planet?

We work to save endangered species for many reasons. We do it for their genetic legacy, their place in the ecosystem, their commercial value, their moral right to exist. Sometimes it's simply for the love of a fascinating natural creation. Yet there is one overriding reason that binds us all, whatever our beliefs: Protecting endangered species is the law.

"There are some cases that seem perhaps less hopeful than others," said Sylvia M. Fallon, a wildlife conservation scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and an expert on the ESA. "But the law is designed to provide a legally enforceable way to make sure that we do what we can to identify threats and eliminate or mitigate those threats." Ultimately, said Fallon, the law is about "keeping all the pieces in place and not letting the whole web of life come apart."

But the pieces are countless, and budgets are finite. When it comes to some endangered species, law and economics may be on a collision course.

"I'm not sure I really truly believe in recovery for these fishes," Tom Burke told me one evening, as we sat on the upper deck of a houseboat the Bureau of Reclamation had rented for the Roundup. A waxing crescent moon glimmered just behind Burke's head, and the Big Dipper hung handle-side down, like a celestial question mark suspended over the lake.

It's not that Burke thinks razorback suckers on the lower Colorado should be abandoned to history. He's just a realist, looking out from the vantage of a long career. He's retiring in July, leaving Marsh and others worried about the fate of the program. "I believe we can do conservation, keep these species going for as long as we want to make a positive effort," he said. "But they have to be managed. I'm not saying these are zoo populations, but it's difficult for them to complete their life history without some outside help. And I don't see that ever changing."

Scientists who have spent their careers trying to save the native fish of the Colorado often wonder if their efforts will, ultimately, make any difference. "We're almost 30 years after the last amendments to the Endangered Species Act were passed in '73," said Marsh, "and no one would argue that native fishes of the Southwest are in better shape today than when the act was passed. We're actually losing ground." But he, for one, refuses to give up just yet. Politics might change, attitudes might change, some sort of breakthrough is always possible. "I guess I hope that if we knock on the door long enough that the door will open and things will move forward in a more meaningful way," he told me.

Before the crescent moon had risen that night, as the early spring sun fell toward Lake Mohave's Nevada coastline, Arizona's hills turned fiery pink. Bats shared the sky with seagulls and pelicans. A bald eagle, that ESA poster child, perched in a tree along what once was the edge of a canyon above a free-flowing Colorado River. As his staff worked nets for the second time that day, hoping to find more tagged razorbacks in order to unlock the mysteries of which fish were surviving, and why, Marsh looked out over the lake and tried to imagine its waters somehow cleansed of the species that don't belong here.

"It wouldn't be devoid of fish," he said. "The resources the natives need are all here. Fish are primitive and highly adaptive. So you give them a few elements -- water, food, shelter, real fundamental things -- they'll do OK."

Hillary Rosner has written about science and the environment for Mother Jones, The New York Times, Newsweek, OnEarth and many other publications.

This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

For more information, visit:

The Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

Marsh and Associates Native Fish Lab

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATURAL HISTORY INSTITUTE
    The Executive Director is the chief executive officer of the Natural History Institute (NHI). The Executive Director has broad authority to lead and manage the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...