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Suckers hang around restored wetland

Leslie Bach, a hydrologist with the Nature Conservancy, talks about the newly formed wetlands beside Upper Klamath Lake near Modoc Point. The wetlands are on former pasture land of Goose Bay Farms.

November 8, 2004


MODOC POINT - Tiny juvenile suckers foraged this summer in a shallow bog that once served as a cow pasture beside Upper Klamath Lake.

The appearance of the endangered fish was particularly rewarding for the Nature Conservancy, which bought the land and breached a dike to let lake water flow in and out of the parcel to create sucker habitat.

"It is showing us that if we open up areas, they will use them," said John Crandall, the Klamath Basin fisheries ecologist for the Nature Conservancy. "Before, that was just theory."

Last fall the Nature Conservancy used excavators to cut a pair of notches in the decades-old dikes on the south pasture of Goose Bay Farms.

The pasture is now shallow marsh with heavy vegetation. Untold numbers of endangered Lost River and shortnose sucker larvae found their way into the marsh.

Crandall said he has caught thousands of sucker larvae and juveniles during his sampling this year.

By now the fish are several months old.

But there still is a mystery: Where do the older juveniles and young suckers go?

Scientists have been able to find adult suckers ranging in age from five years to more than 40 years. But younger suckers are hard to come by.

U.S. Geological Survey and Oregon State University researchers are among those seeking answers.

"We haven't really been very successful in catching those age classes," said Mark Buettner, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He said scientists have been able to catch younger fish in open water of Gerber Reservoir and Clear Lake. They just aren't showing up in Upper Klamath Lake.

John Crandall holds up a vial full of the preserved sucker larvae that he collected in the newly formed area of Upper Klamath Lake near Modoc Point. Crandall is a fisheries ecologist with the Nature Conservancy.

It's unclear whether the scientists are sampling in the wrong spots, or if suckers in that age group aren't surviving, Buettner said.

While the mystery of the young suckers remains, the Nature Conservancy plans to carry on with creating more rearing habitat for larval suckers.

The Nature Conservancy is adding another breach to increase the flooded area of the pasture from about 165 acres to 300 acres. When the lake is full, water is about 4 to 5 feet deep on the pasture.

And the pasture is just the start.

The Nature Conservancy plans to start on a larger project next summer. Along with the 2,700-acre Goose Bay Farms it bought in 1999, the group also has the 4,500-acre Tulana Farms purchased in 1996. The Williamson River flows through the properties, and the Nature Conservancy plans to restore sucker habitat on a grand scale.

"All of this used to be lake-fringe wetland," said Leslie Bach, a hydrologist for the group, sweeping her hand across an aerial photo of the Williamson River Delta.

Crandall said the larvae are using the re-opened marsh because it offers them shelter, food and warmth.

"Larval and juvenile sucker habitat is really a key in the Klamath Basin," Crandall said.

Crandall said the suckers he found in the marsh were spawned in the Williamson River. Having more habitat in the river's delta would help those fish particularly.

Mark Stern, Klamath Basin director for the Nature Conservancy, said it would also help to have other places opened up for sucker rearing habitat on the fringes of the lake.

"I think there are a number of pretty good options to do this around the lake," Stern said.

Crandall said the success of the re-opened marshland bodes well for future sucker habitat restoration projects in the Basin.

"If we open up these areas, they will come," he said.

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