Curtains for the Pallid Sturgeon

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

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The scutes are hard and bony, and when I rub them the wrong way, they snag my fingers. Its white belly feels like a smooth, tough sheet of wet rubber. Its gills flare bright red, a sign of stress. A clear plastic stretcher is slipped under him, and he's lifted into a white fiberglass tank on the back of a truck. To make him feel at home, the tank has been filled with water pumped from the river ten feet away. The sturgeon dives into the brown water and vanishes.

Darkness falls. The day's catch: four pallid sturgeons, two of which had already been bred in previous years and had to be thrown back. Now the other two will travel for two hours through the night, in a driving rain, to the state hatchery in Miles City, Montana, where for the next three months they'll live in a 24- by 10-foot fiberglass tank. After two weeks, the recovery team will have collected 4 females and 11 males, far short of its goal.

From the outside, the hatchery looks like an airplane hangar, a vast structure with bay doors big enough to accommodate a sizable truck. Inside, a warehouse-like space is lined with a tangle of pipes and scattered with tanks ranging in size from large barrels to small swimming pools. It's clean but smells powerfully of fish. Our two pallids are now in a fiberglass tank filled with crystal clear water, probably the cleanest they have ever been in.

The team has been capturing and breeding pallids, producing as many as 100,000 young per year, since 1997. Most of them don't survive the first few days. Those that do are released, sometimes a few weeks after hatching, sometimes when they're older, six to nine inches, and less vulnerable. Over the years, the biologists have also been collecting data to determine the best age, time and places to release. As of now, there are more questions than answers.

Ultimately, the success of the recovery effort hinges on a bigger question: Will the Missouri River ever again be a viable place for pallids to reproduce on their own? Since the middle of the 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers, which can turn the river on and off like a faucet, has managed it largely to make barge traffic reliable and safe. Over the years, though, most freight has switched from barges to trucks. Many believe the river can soon be restored to a more natural state.

Last year, under pressure from the Fish and Wildlife Service, conservation groups and the courts, the corps agreed to open the faucet a little. This past May, a small, controlled spring rise was released, in imitation of the river's historic cycle, in hopes that the mock flood would spur the pallid sturgeon to spawn. Conservationists are anxiously waiting to see if it worked.

For now, though, the Dinosaur of the Missouri is largely relegated to reproducing indoors. The next generation of pallids will grow up not in mud, but in fiberglass. Whether there will be other generations is uncertain. The pallid's future, like the waters it dominated for millennia, is opaque.

Sam Hooper Samuels is a freelance writer and a fundraiser for Smith College. He lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.


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