Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
SPRINGVILLE — Chad Landress searches through the mud and moss collected in the fine netting of the seine as if he's looking for gold.
He's seeking something much more rare — a juvenile June sucker that wasn't raised in captivity.
Landress is one of four people picking tiny, squirming fish out of the netting and dropping them into a nearby bucket, where they will wait to be identified by species, measured on a board decorated with the words "suckers rule, trouts drool" and tossed back into a pond at the Lower Hobble Creek Wildlife Management Area, just west of Springville.
"Last month, we came here and caught two juvenile June suckers," said Landress, a Utah State University graduate student studying natural resources. "But it's a lot of work for very little reward."
The reward came later in the day, when Landress found evidence that this man-made delta provides a haven for the endangered fish.
"We ended up catching eight juvenile suckers in one of the ponds," Landress said. "Some of them were over three inches, which is incredible growth for being spawned in June."
The find is a milestone. Despite spending $5 million a year for the last 10 years to bring the June sucker back from the brink of extinction, no one has found a nonhatchery-raised adult June sucker in Utah Lake in decades.
The eight juveniles found several weeks ago may be the first, if they can avoid predators long enough to grow a few more inches and then find their way from a pond into the nearby lake.
The Lower Hobble Creek area, created last year to transform the last mile of Hobble Creek into a meandering stream with isolated pools where June sucker larvae can thrive, is one of several success stories for the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program.
Spending $5 million a year to save a species many consider a "trash" fish may seem like a waste to some. But JSRIP officials say that every step taken to save the fish has been a step to restore Utah Lake to its natural habitat. Saving the sucker may well save the lake.
The JSRIP is a coalition of state, federal and outdoor and environmental interest groups that joined forces in 2002 to save the June sucker, a fish the federal government listed as endangered in 1986, and identified the lower five miles of the Provo River as critical habitat.
This multifaceted effort includes stocking Utah Lake with hatchery-raised June suckers, removing the fish's chief competitor — carp — from the lake and restoring waterways essential to the fish's survival — the rivers and creeks that feed Utah Lake and provide critical spawning grounds.
And finally, the effort seems to be making a difference.
"The last couple of years, it feels like we have turned a corner," said Michael Mills, the JSRIP coordinator. Mills, who works for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, is one of two people who work full time to restore the June sucker.
"Ten or 15 year ago, it was all resistance," said Reed Harris, program director of the JSRIP. "Now, with a lot of the things we've done and the stories that have come out, a lot of people realize that what we are doing is valuable, and we tend to get mostly support.
"Working in the endangered species program is usually a downer," Harris adds. "But this has been very positive, and even more so now that we have support from virtually all the entities involved. It's not about just the fish — it's about the lake, and everybody can see the importance of making Utah Lake good again."
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