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Bob D. Burdick, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Rick Smaniotto holds a 17 pound female Colorado pikeminnow.

GRAND JUNCTION,  Colo. — There's a trio of men working out of this city who can talk nonstop about their unified efforts to save four endangered species.

They can describe millions of dollars of elaborate equipment used, hours spent trapping, catching, releasing and tagging. They point to studies, reservoir expansion projects, timed releases of flows into rivers, and on, and on.

Over the years, however, they have found they don't have to do the talking or demonstrations to win people to their cause — they let these four examples of fish do that — simply by the animals' tenacious existence.

"The greatest tool for changing people's minds is the fish itself," said Dale Ryden, project leader over the Western Colorado/Utah Fisheries Complex operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"When people handle them and see them, they go from thinking they're nothing, to thinking they're worth saving."

A little kiss by elementary school students along the way doesn't hurt — as children who often do to a 10-year-old razorback sucker that is the unit's "education fish" for tours of the Grand Valley fish hatchery.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program is working to save the razorback sucker, the bonytail, the humpback chub and Colorado pikeminnow — fish that exist in only one river system in the world and have endured for millions of years.

Largely considered trash fish by old-timers and anglers, they are alternately treasured by conservationists and others as an aquatic testament to surviving against the odds.

Michael Gross, one of those trio of men who spend their days surrounded by thousands of razorback suckers, recalls a relative's disgusted reaction when the man learned Gross had taken a job as a fish culturist at the Grand Valley hatchery.

"He gave me the third degree," Gross said. "He said they use to just toss them on the bank if they caught them. I brought him in here and now he's a fan."

Little education efforts like that are paying off — such as Grand Junction's annual water festival (where fish kissing is again an activity of the day) or the adopt-a-fish program in which participatory schools agree to take care of some of the endangered fish for a time until they are "adult" enough to fend on their own.

"These are not silver-back gorillas, not glamorous like some endangered species," Ryden said, "but we're motivated. Normally in natural resources, these people are attached to what they do. You don't find people who hate going to work every day."

With the four species' continued existence in jeopardy, the government is in a labor-intensive, costly pursuit to counter the mistakes of the past, spending more than $265 million in recovery programs to restore a semblance of balance in the upper and lower Colorado River basins where man — and fish — can co-exist.

Such efforts to save the prehistoric fish lead to questions about value, if there is intrinsic worth in existence alone, if man should save something dying out or let go of a species that doesn’t earn its keep in its usefulness to him.

“Status as an endangered species is enough for a lot of people,” said Tom Chart, directory of the Upper Colorado River Recovery program. “That is not enough for other people.”

But when the fishes’ dwindling numbers pitted the Endangered Species Act against future water development in the region the species’ value took on new meaning.

“Any development that could jeopardize the recovery of the fish,” potentially jeopardized tapping new water resources, Chart said.

“That sells it for a lot more people.”

The fish that once thrived in the upper and lower Colorado River basins have had a rough go over the last century or so.

Crews dammed up the rivers and cut off migration corridors, built irrigation ditches that trapped them and left them dying by the hundreds in farm fields. Some were pulled out of the river and onto shore, never to be eaten, while others fed desperate families who looked past their bones. In the 1960s, more than 445 miles of the Green River were poisoned to rid the waters of the "coarse" fish and instead replace them with non-natives such as catfish and trout.

"Over the last 100 years there have been all kinds of things that have knocked their props off," Ryden said. 

Efforts to reverse that near decimation of the species range from the installation of elaborate fish passages or ladders — such as the one at Redlands diversion dam on the Gunnison River — or fish screens and barrier nets. All work to facilitate the passage of the endangered fish, keep them from moving into canals or selectively keep non-native fish from moving on.

Fish biologists such as Bob Burdick — another part of that trio of men — work the structures such as the one at Redlands, retrieving the fish that swim the ladder. If they're endangered, Burdick can wave a specialized device, much like a wand, to determine if the animal has been microchipped.

"It's their Social Security number for life," he says.

Of the thousands of fish that move through the ladder, 85 percent are non-native. In the early stages of the program, sightings of the endangered fish were rare, if at all.

A moment of victory came in July 2002 when a female Colorado pikeminnow weighing 17 pounds came up the ladder at Redlands.

Among the four species in jeopardy, the Colorado pikeminnow is faring the best, in contrast to the razorback sucker that was just about wiped out when the fish was listed as endangered in 1991 and the recovery program was launched.

Since 1996, more than 250,000 razorbacks have been stocked into the Colorado River and its tributaries.

At the hatchery in Grand Valley rows upon rows of 92 blue tanks hold about 28,000 fish anticipated to be put into the "grow ponds." The fish live there for about six months as sort of a primer for introduction into the river system. About half survive.

Gross said it is tricky to try to accomplish what nature did unaided by man for millions of years earlier.

There's filtration and oxygenation systems, the right temperature of water to keep, the right amount of food to feed and to gather the spawn that will produce fish viable enough to survive.

So far, all these efforts playing out in multiple states are achieving milestone victories, bringing the program closer to meeting its recovery goals so the fish can be eventually delisted.

Last month, for example, researchers celebrated the discovery of razorback sucker larvae for the first time in the White River in eastern Utah — about five miles upstream from where it meets the Green River. The finding means hatchery-grown stocked fish are now reproducing in a stretch of critical habitat where razorback sucker presence was until recently extremely rare.

Such victories are backed by the success of an endangered species recovery program that has not had its progress or efforts come under fire by environmentalists for not doing enough  — nor has it been dragged into court by water delivery systems or sportsman's groups for interfering too much.

Chart credits that to the openness of the program through its willingness to involve all stakeholders.

He also believes its success go to goals — which in the end — he says are noble.

"When people step back and realize this is the only place in the world where you find these fish — they are rare, unique — they start to think. And we are not just trying to save the fish, we are trying to keep these rivers healthy. There's a reason people move to the banks of these rivers in these western environments. They are the lifeline to these areas."

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