by Jim Low
A pallid sturgeon born in the muddy flows of the Missouri or Mississippi rivers is among the rarest fishes in North America, an endangered species facing extinction.
Which is why a researcher who handles dozens of big fish daily got excited when he saw the flat snout and staggered barbels on a pale, 3-foot-long fish thrashing in the Missouri River.
“Ooh, big pallid,” shouted Thomas Huffmon, a resource science assistant for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), seeking hatchery brood fish to save a species.
“Because it’s so big, it’s probably pretty old,” said Darby Niswonger, a resource staff scientist for MDC’s Missouri River Field Station. “There’s a good chance it’s a wild fish.”
A multi-state, multi-agency Missouri River Recovery Program funded and led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers aims to help pallid sturgeons and other fish and wildlife species affected by river modifications. As part of that program, MDC fisheries crews this spring were catching wild pallids from the river as brood fish for spawning at MDC’s Blind Pony Hatchery near Sweet Springs. Those fish carry genetic diversity that’s needed if hatchery-raised pallids are to help the species survive in their native rivers.
Biologists worry that with low numbers of pallids remaining, the chances of males and females finding one another during the spring spawning season are remote, Niswonger said. Plus, pallid males and females don’t reach reproductive maturity until 7 to 13 years, and both only reproduce every couple of years. Stocking hatchery-raised fish is one hope for helping pallids rebound.
Niswonger and Huffmon caught one pallid sturgeon that day and it received special attention. The crew recorded it’s measurements, the location where it was caught and the water temperature and flow velocity. Niswonger then ran an electronic scanner over the pallid to see it if had an implanted microchip, which would indicate that it is a hatchery-reared fish. She found none. A microchip was inserted into the fish that enables researchers to track the fish’s growth and movement in the river if the fish is caught again.
Fish taken to the hatchery are later returned to the river. The biologist also clipped a portion of fin for DNA testing at a laboratory. It will not be utilized until a DNA test ensures that it is different from the hatchery-reared pallids. More than a million young pallids have been released into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, with three stockings in the 1990s and annual stockings since 2001.
Just raising pallids in a hatchery and releasing them won’t make the population sustainable. Biologists want to know what underwater habitats the fish prefer during spawning. “We still don’t know for sure what the bottleneck is,” Niswonger said, “what’s keeping them from growing and maturing and spawning on their own.” Research crews from MDC and other agencies also study the fish in other seasons, such as following some with radio telemetry, so habitat can be modified along the river to help them. The fate of pallids is tied to solving mysteries beneath a churning river’s surface.
—by Bill Graham
Patricia (Trish) Meagher Rucker has wonderful memories of visiting the family farm near Silver mines in Madison County while growing up. Her grandparents lived on the farm from 1890 to 1944, raising pigs, cattle, chickens—and children. Her grandfather was also the Silver mines' postmaster, a position he held for more than 44 years. The farm was later owned by her aunt and uncle, James and Erma Royer, and inherited by her father, Robert Meagher, who practiced law in Fredericktown.
Following her father’s death in 2007, Trish contacted the Department about donating the 84-acre home place, situated immediately south of Millstream Gardens Conservation Area (CA) approximately 8 miles west of Fredericktown. “I simply could not sell the land,” Trish said. “It had been in the family since my great-great grandparents bought it in 1860. It was a place filled with so many memories. I knew that the St. Francis River straddled Millstream Gardens and that my family’s land would provide public access to the part of the conservation area lying south of the river. I also liked the idea that my family and I would still be able to hike around on it.”
Trish’s donation to the Department was given in honor of her children, Roberta and James, and the tract is named to honor her grandparents. The Robert Patrick and Lula Ellis Meagher Conservation Tract, which consists of a mix of pasture and woodlands, is managed as part of the Millstream Gardens CA. For more information on Millstream Gardens CA, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/a8210.
—by David McAllister
This is your chance to try fishing without having to buy a permit. MDC's annual Free Fishing Days are June 11 and 12. Any person may fish state waters without a permit, trout permit or prescribed area daily tag during Free Fishing Days.
Requirements for special permits still may apply at some county, city or private areas. Normal regulations, such as size and daily limits, still apply, too. So, borrow a neighbor’s rod and reel, or come out to a conservation area where a Free Fishing Days program is scheduled, and borrow ours. To see a list of Free Fishing Days events, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/3675. To find a conservation area near you, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/8911.
The new MDC Kansas City Regional office opened May 2 at 12405 S.E. Ranson Road, near Lee’s Summit. The new office is a visitor center for James A. Reed Memorial Conservation Area (CA). The road to the new office also is the main entrance to the 3,084-acre CA. A classroom is available for conservation training and meetings. Visitors can pick up area maps and other free conservation literature, obtain hunting and fishing permits, and buy nature books. The office will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, except on state holidays. No staff will be present on weekends. However, outdoor, self-serve stations for hunters to pick up and deposit hunt cards during dove, waterfowl, rabbit and squirrel seasons will be available. For more information, call 816-655-6250, or visit mdc.mo.gov/node/a5501 for information about James A. Reed CA.
Three research biologists stood motionless, listening for one meek call among the many louder bird songs wafting across a grassy field on a recent spring morning. Levi Jaster and two assistants spend many mornings searching for Henslow’s sparrows, a tiny, 4-inch bird weighing less than an ounce. These birds live reclusively in tall prairie grasses. The biologists’ experienced ears picked out the thin chirp from other sounds. Henslow’s sparrows are a grassland bird in decline nationally and considered a “species of concern” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But fortunately, Henslow’s sparrows are nesting and thriving at Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) areas near Sedalia, Cole Camp and Green Ridge. These areas are being preserved or restored with native grasses and wildflowers. The research on this day was at the Bruns Tract west of Green Ridge, which is owned by the Missouri Prairie Foundation but managed by MDC. The research team is also studying the sparrows at other MDC areas managed for grassland plants and wildlife.
Jaster, of Concordia, is a graduate student at Emporia State University in Kansas. This is his second year of research on Henslow’s sparrows at MDC prairie areas. This summer he’s studying the birds’ usage of fields with nonnative cool season grasses compared to former crop fields now replanted with native prairie grasses. The research also serves to gather other data on population trends, nesting and habitat preferences that might be useful in helping all grassland birds in Missouri and other states.
In prior decades, little research was done on Henslow’s sparrows, Jaster said. Casual bird watchers don’t often see them in the grassy fields. They spend winters at coastal pine savannahs, a tree and grass mix, in the southeastern United States. In the spring they migrate to Midwestern and Northeastern open lands to build nests on the ground. In spring, males fly up from the ground and cling to waist-high grass and chirp to defend their mating territory. Some Henslow’s sparrow nests are barely bigger than a quarter and hidden in dead or greening grass clumps. Tracking their reproduction is difficult.
“We know so little about them,” Jaster said. “They tend to stay on the ground. They run on the ground. You sometimes see them carrying food back and forth to the nest, and that’s about it.”
The crew banded 42 Henslow’s sparrows last year and they are having good success at finding birds this spring. MDC-managed prairies have a diversity of habitat that attracts and sustains grassland birds, he said.
“There’s not much out there beyond these areas for them to use that’s really high-quality habitat for them,” Jaster said.
Jaster’s study is finding useful information about breeding sites that Henslow’s sparrows prefer and what natural habitat provides buffers for them between houses and roads. Such information may be useful for helping prairie chickens, said Steve Cooper, an MDC wildlife management biologist.
“What we’re doing is helping Henslow’s sparrows as we try to help prairie chickens,” Cooper said, “and that makes me feel good.”
—by Bill Graham
A 9.3 percent dip in the 2011 spring turkey harvest confirms what Missourians already knew—it has been a stormy spring in the Show-Me State.
Resource Scientist Jason Isabelle, the Conservation Department’s turkey specialist, announced that hunters checked 38,328 turkeys during the regular spring turkey season April 18 through May 8. That is down 3,926 from last year. Adding the harvest from the youth turkey season, April 9 and 10, brings Missouri’s 2011 spring turkey harvest to 42,226. That is down 8.6 percent from last year. Spring turkey permit sales were down 4,885, or 3.3 percent, from last year.
Top harvest counties were Franklin, with 840 turkeys checked, Texas with 699 and Bollinger with 675. Juvenile gobblers, known as “jakes,” made up 19.6 percent of the harvest. That is virtually identical to last year, when jakes comprised 20 percent of the harvest.
Isabelle predicted a smaller harvest this year because of a decline in turkey numbers statewide.
“We still have very strong wild turkey numbers in most areas compared to other states,” said Isabelle, “but there is no question that the population is down, and more in some areas than others. That was bound to affect our harvest this year.”
The season got off to a good start. The youth harvest was virtually identical to last year’s, and the opening-day harvest was slightly higher than in 2010. Then it turned cool and stormy.
Rain, cool temperatures and wind have a double negative effect on hunting success. Stormy weather causes male turkeys to gobble less, making them harder to hunt. Nasty weather also discourages hunters from going afield.
Isabelle said he doesn’t expect this spring’s relatively light harvest to have a significant effect on the state’s turkey population. This is partly because 99 percent of the harvested turkeys are males, and turkey reproduction is determined by the number of hens. MDC sets the hunting season late enough in the spring to allow ample opportunity for gobblers and hens to breed prior to the start of the season.
“Harvesting 4,000 fewer gobblers in the spring is a minor factor compared to annual reproduction,” said Isabelle. “In a good year, our hens can produce more than 300,000 poults (young turkeys). That dwarfs the total number of gobblers we harvest, even when hunting conditions are good.”
Isabelle said Missouri has enough wild-turkey hens to stage a population recovery. To do that, however, the birds need favorable weather. Wet conditions take a toll on nesting success of ground-nesting birds like turkeys. It also reduces survival of poults, which are susceptible to hypothermia when cool, wet weather prevails.
“Even in areas where flooding has occurred, hens still have time to re-nest and bring off a good crop of poults,” he said. “We have had several years of bad nesting conditions, but I’m hoping this will be the year when we get warmer, drier weather, and turkey numbers bounce back a bit. May and June are critical months for wild turkey production, and it’s still not too late for conditions to improve.”
County-by-county spring turkey harvest totals are available at mdc.mo.gov/node/12518.
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