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Ecology of bonytail and razorback sucker and the role of off-channel habitats in their recovery

January 1, 2006

The bonytail and razorback sucker are two of four endangered mainstem fishes found in the Colorado River. Unlike the Colorado pikeminnow and humpback chub, wild populations of the bonytail and razorback sucker are either extirpated from the mainstem river or are nearly so. Agencies are aggressively stocking these fish and while repatriated fish spawn, their young are rapidly eaten by introduced predators. A decade of predator removal efforts has proved ineffective in restoring natural recruitment. Today, the presence of these species is totally dependent on stocking, suggesting both species are worse off today than when recovery efforts began nearly two decades ago.

In contrast, both species readily produce young in ponds where nonnative predators are absent. Evidence shows they evolved with the ability to spawn in both flowing and standing water, which suggests isolated oxbow communities may have been an essential feature in their evolution and survival strategy.

Sustainable populations during the past few decades have only occurred in isolated ponds devoid of predatory nonnative fish. Efforts to force recovery in the main channel river continue to fail due to the presence of nonnative predators that may be economically important recreational species. Off-channel sanctuaries provide research and management opportunities on a scale that are both biologically and economically realistic. Effective management of these species in small habitats appears to be the most logical approach to advance recovery in larger river reaches.

This report presents new findings, updates existing information, and describes what may well represent the only practical approach to these species’ conservation and recovery. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the Colorado River system from its origin to the Gulf of California and includes a description of propagation and stocking programs which have not been described elsewhere. The report also updates what is known or suspected on the life history and ecology of these two endangered fishes. Chapter 2 describes the successful recruitment of both species at an oxbow pond on the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, discusses factors that contribute to completion of the life cycle of both fishes, and provides recommendations for future management of the impoundment. Chapter 3 provides historical evidence that oxbow habitats were formed historically in years of high runoff and the importance of these habitats for survival and evolution of native fishes. It also summarizes key features of habitats that can serve as sanctuaries that enhance early survival of the endangered fishes and allow the fish to complete their entire life cycles.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2006
Title Ecology of bonytail and razorback sucker and the role of off-channel habitats in their recovery
DOI 10.3133/sir20065065
Authors Gordon A. Mueller
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2006-5065
Index ID sir20065065
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center