Super heroes of environment: Saving endangered fish species

The Razorback Sucker is scooped up by M. Thomas, USBR, where he will weigh, measure and decide if it meets microchip requirements.  Photo by Eileen Nauman

The Razorback Sucker is scooped up by M. Thomas, USBR, where he will weigh, measure and decide if it meets microchip requirements. Photo by Eileen Nauman

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Razorback Sucker held by an Arizona Game and Fish Department employee. This endangered fish can grow to 35 inches long and live up to 40 years. Photo by Eileen Nauman

We have caped crusader men and women who work quietly behind-the-scenes to save the lives of endangered fish, reptiles and amphibians. 

Bubbling Ponds Fish Hatchery is operated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, AZGFD. They are undercover as Biologists or Biological Science Technicians (BST’s). 

These heroes are wearing chest-high waders, gloves, weighing, measuring, microchipping (also known as Passive Integrated Transponder or PIT tagging) and then releasing an endangered fish species back into their natural wild habitat. 

Some of the superheroes work for the Federal Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) teams to rescue a species in trouble.  In this case, it’s the Colorado River Razorback Sucker. 

Their job is to reintroduce these fish back to their wild environment once they reach a certain size. And it’s happening right here in the Verde Valley.

The Razorback Sucker (Xyrauchen texanus) can grow up to 35 inches long at the Bubbling Ponds Fish Hatchery, Cornville.  This fish is estimated to live up to 40 years old. 

Over time, water diversions and dams built along the Colorado River have severely disrupted their natural habitat. Several other fish species on the federal endangered list, or getting close to it, are also raised in these ponds. 

Sarah Taylor, manager of the Bubbling Ponds Fish Hatchery, works with them in an important way. It is her facility that takes small fry from the Dexter, New Mexico Southwestern Native Aquatic Resources Recovery Center  or SNARRC, and place them into one of their many ponds. 

There, the fry remains two to four years.  She and her staff feed them twice daily, ensure the pond is aerated properly so they have plenty of daily oxygen to fulfill their needs. 

These endangered fish are contracted out from USBR to a state fish hatchery to raise, care, and feed them until they have grown to a certain size in order to be reintroduced back into their natural environment in the Colorado River. 

The AZGFD crew drive the fish in the pond to one end of it where they have lived, net the fish and place them into a truck that contains special water holding tanks, and drive them over to the hatchery building.

There, the USBR team go to work. The thousand or more Razorback suckers are weighed, measured and if a certain length, tagged with a PIT microchip in a day’s time by this group. 

After that, the AZGFD will drive them out to areas along the Colorado River.  That could be in Arizona or Nevada.  Most surprising is that sometimes, golf course ponds are utilized by the AZGFD. 

For example, the Emerald Canyon Golf Course, Parker, Arizona, which sits right next to the Colorado River, has an agreement with AZGFD to raise and feed the Razorback Sucker,  and to place them into their four ponds. 

They were the first golf course facility to offer their ponds to endangered fish. The Razorback Suckers are sort of like housekeepers to the water they live in, vacuum cleaners that keep the water clean and healthy.

They do feed in the water column however, when fed pellets daily by trained golf pond employees.

It’s a win-win for both parties.  Once a year, these growing fish are netted, weighed, measured and placed back into their natural habitat somewhere along the Colorado River. And then a new group of endangered fish are placed into the golf course ponds. One issue with golf course ponds is monitoring and maintaining healthy water quality during the hot summer months.

Randy Thomas, BST, works for the USBR and he noted that the golf course pond endangered fish were healthier, gained weight faster and there was less loss to predation, than those restocked fish placed directly back into the Colorado River system.

The problem with golf course ponds is maintaining healthy water quality during the hot summer months. Who knew golf course ponds could be a valuable environmentally safe place for endangered fish species to grow before restocking the Colorado River? 

Predation is where one animal who feeds upon another animal, is an issue in the world of endangered fish.  Any animal who has fish in its diet eyes Bubbling Ponds as a smorgasbord waiting to be gleefully sampled from and often. 

Great Blue Herons, Belted Kingfishers, Osprey hawks and Bald Eagles, all like to take advantage of the fish growing up at Bubbling ponds.  Add to this, wily Louisiana Otters who ply Oak Creek and the Verde River, and who love to make a quick trip up a hill and swim into Bubbling ponds to get their fill of fish, usually beneath the cover of night. 

“We lose quite a bit (to predation),” Taylor said of the fish under her care. She doesn’t want to cover the ponds because of the duck inhabitants, or install tall fencing because of other wildlife that use the ponds as a water source, like white tailed deer. So, they manage predators by harassing birds, and relocating those highly intelligent otters away from their smorgasbord.

Bubbling ponds can be seen symbolically as a sort of giant maternal fish incubator.  Taylor and her employees raise other endangered species such as the Colorado Pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius ). 

This fish can grow to six feet long and reach 100 pounds. It used to be found in proliferation in main stem of the Colorado River and in tributaries throughout the Western states.   The Roundtail Chub (Gila robusta) is raised at Bubbling Ponds, too, but is not endangered list.  Still, it is another fish refugee due to all the dams built, and who needs support in order to keep it from declining in its natural habitat and moving onto the endangered species list.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department employees who team up with federal crews, are the unsung heroines and heroes protecting declining fish species.

They work daily to save them.

To visit Bubbling Ponds

• 1970 N Page Springs Rd., Cornville, AZ 86325-6102

• 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., seven days a week

• Trails such as Black Hawk, Willow and many more.

• Dogs welcome on a leash.

• Jogging

• Birding

• Photography

• Walking/hiking

• Educational

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