In The Colorado River, These Little Suckers Are Making A Comeback

Nov 9, 2018

The temperature is hovering right around 90 degrees the day Dale Ryden and I float down the Colorado River near Grand Junction, Colorado. The water looks so inviting, a cool reprieve from the heat, but if either of us jumped in we'd be electrocuted.

"It can actually probably be lethal to people if you get in there," Ryden, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says.

Next to us, Ryden's coworkers cruise by in grey and blue inflatable rafts, outfitted with a metal sphere — the size of a disco ball — hanging off the front. A generator on the back of the raft sends an electric charge through the ball into the turbid water. Ryden compares the color to a glass of Ovaltine. What lies beneath the surface of the sediment-laden water is a mystery.

"To get at the animal we're studying we have to actually find ways to capture them and take them out of their natural habitat," Ryden says. "And so one of the ways we can do that is electrofishing."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists take stock of nonnative fish caught as part of an electrofishing trip down the Colorado River near Grand Junction, Colorado.
Credit LUKE RUNYON / KUNC

The fish that venture near the electrified rafts are momentarily stunned and pulled out of the water with nets. Today's mission is to remove nonnative fish — like small mouth bass — which feed on the young progeny of the four endangered species found in the river. The bass will be collected, measured, weighed, stored in bags and eventually discarded in a local landfill.

Meanwhile, any of the four endangered species — bonytail, razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow, and humpback chub — we encounter will be treated with care and released back into the river.

Ryden has a tough, and some would say impossible, job. Everyday he tries to find ways to help the fish that evolved to live only in this river system —one of the most engineered ecosystems in the world —survive.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Dale Ryden paddles down the Colorado River between Grand Junction and Fruita, Colorado.
Credit LUKE RUNYON / KUNC

Ancient species

Fish in the Colorado River are a product of harsh conditions.

Over millions of years the rushing, sediment-laden water sculpted their bodies with characteristic ridges and bumps, making them well-equipped to handle its highs and lows. But human interference in the rivers they call home has caused a few to nearly go extinct.

"They've survived three explosions of the Yellowstone supervolcano. They were here when mastodons and woolly mammoths went extinct," Ryden says.

He ticks off the historical events that upended human civilization while the fish just kept swimming. The razorbacks and humpback chubs didn't bat an eye while Roman and Egyptian empires collapsed, while America was colonized, while soldiers fought the Civil War.

It was the era of big dam building that fundamentally altered the fish species' home. Within the last 100 years or so, Ryden says, dams and other water diversions have made life close to impossible for these fish. Then people started adding in toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals and a suite of invasive fish.

"Call it the death by a thousand cuts," Ryden says. "So they could survive any one of those problems probably fairly well. When you start throwing them all on top of them, then it becomes a lot more problematic."

About an hour into our trip, there's a flurry of activity on one of the rafts. Technician Andrew Disch dips his net into the water and pulls out the river's historic predator — the Colorado pikeminnow. It's been listed as endangered for more than 50 years.

The fish is impressive, measuring about 3 feet long. But it's a semblance of its former self, Ryden says.

"Back in the day these guys used to get 6 feet long and a hundred pounds," he says.

Technician Andrew Disch holds a Colorado pikeminnow. Historically the fish was the Colorado River's top predator.
Credit LUKE RUNYON / KUNC

The fish gulps down its prey with a mouth so gaping you could put your whole hand inside without touching the sides (something Ryden has tested himself). This pikeminnow is pale green on top with a white belly and a pink-colored tail, shaped like a mermaid fin.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Travis Francis scans a little chip inside the fish.

"So, we haven't we haven't seen this fish since 2004," he says, adding that he and other biologists make dozens of passes over this section of river each summer. They've documented some of these fish traveling several hundred river miles from the San Juan River, down through Lake Powell and up to Grand Junction.

Ryden estimates about 400 pikeminnow exist in the upper reaches of the Colorado River, and close to 800 in stretches of the Green River, a tributary to the Colorado. Think of them like a lion on the Serengeti, he says. These fish used to be the top of the food chain on this river. Now imagine you built a series of concrete walls around the lion, boxing her in tighter and tighter, making it difficult to traverse the land to hunt. That's exactly what dams on the Colorado River have done to the pikeminnow, he says.

After the fish is measured and scanned, Ryden gently picks it up, pulls it close to his body and walks into the river.

"Come here, baby," he whispers.

With both hands he lowers the fish into the water. It swims in the murky depths and disappears.

Biologist Dale Ryden places a Colorado pikeminnow back into the water after the measured was measured and scanned.
Credit LUKE RUNYON / KUNC

During our day on the river Ryden repeatedly referred to the endangered species as "our fish." He takes ownership of their protection. They're something different and more special than the nonnative fish that surround them.

"I've earned a lot of respect for them," he says. "I think if you put that many issues in front of people that we had to adapt to in a very short amount of time, I think as a species we would have a very hard time existing in some of the world changing conditions that these fish have."

Technician MacKenzie Barnett sorts small mouth bass on an electrofishing raft along the Colorado River.
Credit LUKE RUNYON / KUNC

Defining success in recovery

Since 1988 endangered fish recovery programs along the Colorado River have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, funded by a mix of hydropower revenues and money from agencies within the Department of the Interior. Ryden says the effort is beginning to pay off.

Two species — the humpback chub and the razorback sucker — are on their way to being downgraded from endangered to threatened.

But deciding when and how an endangered species is "recovered" is up for debate. Some environmental groups have questioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to downlist the fish. In the case of the razorback sucker, its population growth is mostly the result of an intense breeding and stocking program, not a result of the fish reproducing in the wild in high numbers. Going forward it's unclear how much government intervention will be necessary to keep the fish from going extinct.

In its proposal to downlist the razorback, the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program is recommending that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revise the goals of the program, and that its current goals for "recovery," written in 2002, are inadequate and out of date.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program is set to expire in 2023. Director Tom Chart says those involved in the program are rethinking what recovery of these species means, and how best to do it. He says current goals for the program don't fully address the need for more coordinated management of flows from the system's reservoirs, removal of nonnative fish and stocking of endangered species past 2023.

"The Colorado River is one of the most altered ecosystems in the world," Chart said in an email. "The [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service should revise recovery goals for this species in these contexts and based on the experiences and information gathered."

"The Colorado River is one of the most altered ecosystems in the world," said Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program director Tom Chart.
Credit LUKE RUNYON / KUNC

"Some people even kiss them"

Even though the Endangered Species Act requires the government to save these fish, it can be tough convincing the public that they are valuable and all the effort isn't in vain. A razorback sucker doesn't have the charisma of some other wildlife, fish biologist Dale Ryden says.

"Basically we've made the judgment through the Endangered Species Act that it's there for a reason and it has a right to exist," he says. "And it doesn't have to be a polar bear or an eagle."

In our last few miles on the river, the biologists pull a grayish-green razorback sucker — the second of the day — from the water and head toward the river banks to scan it.

That's when the Morton family, of mom Kate and kids Simon and Claire, float by on a raft. They're visiting from Houston. Ryden, seeing an opportunity to educate and convince the family of the fish's value, calls them over. He pulls the fish from the livewell on the boat and presents it to the Mortons.

"Go ahead, give it a pet," Ryden says.

Simon gently rubs his fingers along the fish's scales. Claire tentatively places her index finger on the razorback's head.

"Isn't that special?" Kate says. "Wow, that is an awesome fish."

When Dale Ryden first started working on the Colorado River, razorbacks were nearly wiped out. He didn't see one during his first four years on the job. One day a crew brought one into the hatchery for it to be bred. He remembers the biologists crowding around it, taking in the novelty of seeing a wild razorback.

"Some people even kiss them if you're really brave," Ryden says to Simon. "Just right on the cheek."

Ryden leans in a nearly touches his lips to the fish, and makes a kiss sound.

"Aw, that's so sweet," Simon says.

Now after years of stocking tens of thousands into some reaches of the river, Ryden says they're plentiful enough that you could find one on a random summer day and give it a kiss.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.