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Sturgeon big and small

Pallid and shovelnose at Garrison Hatchery

Photo by Kim Fundingsland/MDN A male pallid sturgeon swims in a large holding tank at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. Looking on is Rob Holm, hatchery manager.

They are somewhat of an oddity in the fish world. Sturgeon aren’t as plentiful or as sought after as many gamefish preferred by fishermen, but they are an important part of the underwater ecosystem throughout a wide range of North America.

The largest and longest lived sturgeon in North Dakota, pallids, grow to more than 60 pounds and are believed to reach about 100 years of age. They are a known prehistoric fish whose existence dates back thousands of years.

Pallid sturgeon are river dwellers that move hundreds of miles upstream to spawn. That is, until manmade damns on rivers like the Missouri and Yellowstone made their natural run up the river system impossible.

The Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery has played a very important role in the restoration of pallid sturgeon, of which very few remained in the wild. Each year fisheries biologists capture wild pallids for the purpose of artificially spawning them and adding the offspring back into the population. This year the process was interrupted by coronavirus.

“The Montana fisheries crews couldn’t get out to do any collections this year because of COVID,” said Rob Holm, Garrison Hatchery project manager. “The Fish and Wildlife Service was not allowing any overnight travel.”

However, a quick effort was made and two male pallid sturgeon were captured. Both are in the Garrison Hatchery where biologists have collected milt from the big fish. The milt straws will be stored and used to fertilize eggs next year, if any female pallids are captured. The two males will be returned to the Yellowstone River.

The pallid restoration program has been ongoing for several years. There’s so few pallids remaining in the Missouri and Yellowstone River systems that many of them have been captured multiple times and are “old friends” with biologists. Occasionally a new pallid is caught and is used to help diversify hatchery reared offspring.

Shovelnose sturgeon are another fish that is familiar to the Garrison Hatchery, although the current demand for shovelnose appears very close to having been met.

“We’ve been raising them for 15 years or so,” said Holm. “This is probably the last year we’ll be doing it. They are pretty well established up there.”

Up there, explained Holm, is the Big Horn River in Wyoming. Shovelnose were disappearing from that stretch of river prior to a restoration effort in which the Garrison Hatchery has played a vital role, returning thousands of young sturgeon to the Big Horn each year.

“We did collection of shovelnose again this year, got it done at the last minute before COVID,” said Holm.

Shovelnose are much smaller, and much more plentiful, than pallids.

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