The united efforts of land management agencies and conservation groups have improved populations of the endangered razorback sucker, a fish species native to the Colorado River. A critical part of that effort is centered right in Moab, at the Scott and Norma Matheson Wetlands Preserve. This month, crews will complete the final phase of construction on a fish nursery providing essential habitat for the razorbacks in their early stages of life, protecting them from predators and providing them with warm, calm waters full of nutrients.

Healthy habitat

The fish nursery consists of a widened channel running from the Colorado River to a pond in the wetlands preserve, with a screened gate that allows tiny young razorback larvae to enter the pool but keeps out larger predator fish. Water in the pond is slow-moving and rich with nutrients. In the past, habitats like these occurred naturally when the Colorado River flooded seasonally, but manmade infrastructure like dams and levees, as well as drought and climate change, have practically eliminated the shallow nurseries necessary for razorback sucker fish to grow to adulthood.

A press release from The Nature Conservancy, which manages the preserve and owns the land along with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, states that the nursery at the Matheson Preserve is the only suitable habitat for juvenile razorbacks in 65 miles of the Colorado River.

The first two phases of the Matheson nursery, the channel and the gate, were completed between 2018 and 2019 [See “Giving native fish a chance,” published May 29, 2020. -ed.] After those projects, young razorbacks were detected in the wetlands this past spring, giving managers a good indicator that the completed nursery will be suitable habitat for the fish.

“I consider it a successful ‘Year 0,’” said Katie Creighton, native aquatics project leader for the Moab Field Station of the DWR. Creighton has been involved in the nursery and in studying razorback sucker fish for several years.

The final phase of construction involves excavating 22,500 pounds of dirt, expanding the pond to provide enough room to allow the young razorbacks to grow larger in the protected nursery before returning to the river. A path cut to allow heavy equipment to reach the pond will be converted into a new hiking trail for visitors to the preserve.

“It’s going to be a really nice addition to the experience,” said Linda Whitham, Central Canyonlands program manager for The Nature Conservatory.

A 5,000-foot pipeline is also being installed from Watercress Spring to the pond, which will increase water levels in dry years. The pond expansion is complete and the pipe installation is scheduled to begin within a couple of weeks. The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

Whitham pointed out that the infrastructure for the fish nursery improves the wetlands overall.

“This project is first and foremost for the endangered fish species but there are also secondary benefits that we are really excited about,” she said.

The widened channel between the river and the preserve brings more water into the wetlands, which increases habitat for native plants and animals, and also reduces the threat of wildfire in the area.

The wetlands also provide a respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown for humans, Whitham said. She’s noticed increased visitation to the preserve recently.

“I think people just want to get away from it—the traffic, the craziness, how bottle-necked it gets in town,” she said. “I think that’s pretty darn nice. I certainly find it to be a haven for me during these times.”

Whitham expressed gratitude to everyone who worked on the creation of the fish nursery, including The Nature Conservancy, the DWR and all the funding organizations who contributed to the project’s goal of a million dollars. Donations came from state and federal agencies, as well as private donors.

“That warms my heart, that people want to fund these projects,” Whitham said. “It’s been very rewarding, personally, to be part of this.”

Razorback suckers

Razorback suckers are listed as an endangered species, but with populations rebounding thanks to the efforts of conservationists, wildlife experts are now considering downlisting the species, due to its apparently successful recovery.

The recommendation to downlist came from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018. Scientists must assess the species’ status and management agencies must solicit public comment and redraft recovery plans and goals, said Creighton. That process is underway.

“While the pace of this process can be frustrating at times, it is important to take the time to conduct a robust assessment in order to make sure that the science supports the ruling and that the public and other stakeholders have an opportunity to be involved in the decision,” Creighton said.

“These species thrived for millions of years before we came along and, in the matter of mere decades, carelessly pushed them to the brink of extinction,” she continued. “We owe it to these unique creatures to be thoughtful about how our actions and inactions will affect the species in both the short and long-term.”

Water conservation

Management of the razorback sucker fish is just one example of how water resources are being used in the arid Southwest. Whitham said she hopes that natural areas like the preserve are considered and included in future water allocation and planning efforts.

Situated at the bottom of the Moab Valley, and connected to the Colorado River, the Matheson Wetlands are unlikely to ever completely dry up, Whitham said. However, she’s apprehensive about water availability in the Moab Valley.

“With the crazy amount of development going on, with all the straws going into our aquifer, it’s hard to know what the future’s going to look like,” she said.

The Nature Conservancy has partnered with the United States Geological Survey in its recent studies of the aquifer that supplies the Moab Valley with water. USGS monitoring wells have been installed in the preserve and the conservancy has helped to fund and organize the studies. However, Whitham said that more research is needed.

“It’s kind of a snapshot in time,” she said of recent USGS reports. “They need more data over a period of time to understand what the water availability really is. We need more monitoring wells. We didn’t get quite all the answers that we wanted to.”

More comprehensive data would help inform smart planning and development, she said.

Razorback fish rebounding in Moab-area nursery

“We owe it to these unique creatures to be thoughtful about how our actions and inactions will affect the species in both the short and long-term.”

– Katie Creighton