A rare Utah fish that once numbered in the millions but had dwindled to less than 1,000 is showing signs of recovery, according to wildlife officials.
The June sucker, which lives only in Utah Lake and its tributaries, made its first appearance this year at a restored creek near Springville.
Crews spent $1.3 million fixing up Hobble Creek last year so it could host the struggling sucker, which is named for its June spawning run.
About 100 of the fish used the creek in May and June, according to Mike Mills, a local coordinator for the June sucker recovery program.
"That was a pleasant surprise," he said. "Sometimes you don't know how they're going to react."
About $40 million has been spent trying to save the June sucker, which was listed as an endangered species in 1986.
Five years ago, researchers were barely able to find any June suckers in the 151-square-mile Utah Lake. These days, most samples from the lake have at least a few of the rare fish, Mills said.
One of the key requirements for getting the fish off the endangered species list is that its population becomes self-sustaining.
That means providing more than one tributary for the June sucker to spawn, Mills said. The Provo River remains the most important spawning grounds for the fish but Hobble Creek is a key backup.
The 21-acre restoration finished last November was paid for by the Utah Transit Authority, which used the project as mitigation for wetland losses from construction of the FrontRunner commuter rail line.
Biologists used microchips — similar to those used in pets — to track how many June suckers squirmed up Hobble Creek this year.
June suckers once swam by the millions in Utah Lake and the Provo River. Over the last century or so, though, the population has declined dramatically, partly because of nonnative species that were introduced in the late 1800s.
About 15 years ago, wildlife officials estimated there were fewer than 1,000 suckers left. Today there are probably tens of thousands, though a definitive estimate isn't available, Mills said.
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The biggest hurdle for recovering the fish remains millions of carp that ply Utah Lake. The larger bottom-feeding fish tear out vegetation on the lake bottom that provides hiding places for young suckers trying to avoid predators.
State and federal officials will pay a commercial fisherman this year to remove 5 million pounds of carp. They hope that by removing 75 percent of carp over several years, the population will crash, plants along the lake bottom will recover and the June sucker can get re-established.