The June sucker, a fish native only to Utah Valley, will likely be removed from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list and be reclassified as threatened, a significant step for a species whose total population dipped to as low as 300 two decades ago.
The grey, marble-eyed fish is only found in Utah Lake and its water sources, which include Provo River and Hobble Creek. According to Mike Mills, coordinator of the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program (JSRIP), the fish was negatively impacted by the introduction of non-native species, such as the common carp, a “habitat destroyer” that eats the vegetation June suckers rely on to hide from predators.
“The Utah Lake fish community has been off-balance,” said Mills. “It’s been dominated by common carp and really lacked other species.”
Through a variety of conservation and population revamping efforts, including habitat restoration and stocking Utah Lake with hatchery-born fish, the June sucker population has rebounded since the late 1990s and is now “in the thousands,” Mills said.
On Thursday, representatives from JSRIP, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Department of Natural Resources, Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission, Provo River Water Users Association and other federal, state and city agencies celebrated the reclassification by releasing a hundred adult June sucker into Utah Lake.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services defines an endangered species as one “that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” while the agency defines a threatened species as “any species that is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.”
Larry Crist, a field supervisor with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, said the agency proposed reclassifying the June sucker, but it won’t be official until the proposal goes through a public comment period. Assuming no roadblocks, the June sucker will be reclassified sometime next year, Crist said.
Stocking the lake with fish is a conservation “interim measure” and “like a way of jump-starting the population,” said Chris. “(It) establish(es) a resident population of adults that can utilize the habitats that we’re building for them.”
To be removed from the endangered and threatened list altogether, Crist said the state needs to continue “to improve the ability of the sucker to sustain itself in the wild.”
One such improvement is the Provo River Delta Restoration Project, a proposed development that would divert the flow of the lower Provo River into a downstream delta that would serve as a safe habitat for young June sucker, said Mark Holden, director of the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission, the group heading the project.
“The current environment of the lower Provo River and where it enters Utah Lake is not very suitable for (young June sucker),” said Holden.
The delta would provide the fish with “abundant food resources” and vegetation and would connect directly to the lake so “they will be able to naturally migrate on their own,” Holden said.
The delta’s design has been finalized and construction, which will take about three years, is expected to begin in March.
Describing the ecological importance of having a healthy June sucker population, Mills said the fish “have played an important role in the food web and indicating (the) health of Utah Lake.”
Because the June sucker helps balance the lake’s entire ecosystem, “it’s kind of our mascot for doing great things to help Utah Lake,” he said.