Curtains for the Pallid Sturgeon

Can biologists breed the “Dinosaurs of the Missouri” fast enough to stave off their extinction?

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"Let's catch a fish," Bicknell says. To one end of a long net he ties a basketball-size orange buoy, then swings it in a circle and lets it fly. He and Jordan begin paying out net. Krentz cuts the motor. Ten minutes is as long as a pallid can be left in a net before it gets stressed. On Krentz's signal, Bicknell and Jordan haul in the net. Empty.

Drift after drift is cast, bringing up nothing but debris. A golden eagle flies overhead. Pelicans watch the boat from sandbars. Onshore, a single oil rig pumps crude. The roar of another boat at full throttle cuts through the quiet. As it speeds past us, naturalist Mark Nelson from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks smiles and holds up an index and middle finger. They've caught two pallids.

Jordan and Bicknell pull in a fish. It's not a pallid, but a smallmouth buffalo, perhaps two feet long. As Jordan works to free it, the fish gives a mighty flop, driving itself farther into the net.

"We're the government," Jordan tells it. "We're here to help."

It will be the only fish he'll catch today.

Later, onshore, two pallids caught by another team are brought in, and the scene takes on the atmosphere of an emergency room at the arrival of a heart attack patient. To minimize stress, the fish must be quickly transferred from tubs of water into a large transport truck. But first, a biologist waves an electronic scanner over one of the fish, and the scanner lights up with a ten-digit code. Rob Holm, manager of the federal fish hatchery in Garrison, North Dakota, flips through a thick notebook.

"We know this fish," Holm says. It's a male that was captured and bred a year or two ago, with offspring from the breeding program already in the river. To cut down on inbreeding, the team has to throw him back.

The other fish has no tag. He's going to become a daddy this year. Tape measures flash. Numbers are called out and recorded. Snout to tail, 143 centimeters (a little under five feet). A tag about the size of a carpet tack is injected into the base of the dorsal fin. Now it's pallid number 465043745B.

Reproductive physiologist Molly Webb makes an incision with a scalpel, then inserts an otoscope to find out whether the fish is male or female. "I see nice, white testes," Webb says before suturing the fish closed.

Meanwhile, somebody dips a bucket into the tub and pours the water back in, over and over, oxygenating it. Somebody else injects the pallid with an antibiotic. A third snips two tiny wedges of webbing from its dorsal fin with scissors—a tissue sample for genetic testing.


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