A Cooperative and Collaborative Effort

The June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program, a multi-agency effort, represents a successful working model, engaging local stakeholders — residents, business owners, policy makers, civic leaders, and scientists — in a multi-faceted effort to balance water resource needs for humans with species-recovery efforts in Utah Lake.

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Saving the June Sucker

Saving the June sucker is about developing and maintaining the health of Utah Lake for all those who use it. In an ever-increasingly crowded valley, Utah Lake has emerged as a prized asset for local residents who enjoy many recreational activities on the lake, including fishing, birding, boating, beautiful trail systems, and nature viewing activities. The JSRIP’s efforts include the three following major initiatives. 

 

Managing Non-Native Fish 

The June sucker is one of Utah Lake’s original 13 native fish, but only two remain — the June sucker and the Utah sucker. Non-native fish, including carp, white bass, and walleye, have successfully established self-sustaining populations, crowding out native fish populations and negatively impacting the overall ecosystem of the lake. When these fish were introduced by people as a potential food source, the extent to which they could shift the balance of the lake ecosystem was not well understood.

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Augmenting the Population & Monitoring

After the June sucker was listed as endangered, artificial spawning and stocking efforts were the logical steps to augmenting the wild population in Utah Lake. The next step was to monitor and measure the impact through research projects. These projects also enabled the JSRIP to learn more about June sucker biology, as well as the environmental conditions needed to help June sucker achieve a self-sustaining population. 

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Developing & Maintaining an Ideal Habitat

Along with non-native fish, human impact on Utah Lake has significantly altered the conditions under which June sucker can thrive. Diverting water from tributaries for irrigation by altering channels and eliminating floodplains was commonplace to support the human population in Utah Valley, but the impact was devastating to June sucker. Restoration projects and supplementing stream flows aim to ensure that June sucker spawn naturally in tributaries.

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A June Sucker History

The June sucker story is one about a lake, generations of people, and an
evolving understanding of how we can preserve natural resources.

Over 1000 years ago, Native Fremont people live near the lake and depend on its native fish for food. In 1776, Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante arrives to the valley, meets the local Ute tribe, and is considered to be the first European to see the lake.

Utah Lake was home to millions of June sucker along with 12 other fish species. Of those 13 species, only June sucker and Utah sucker still inhabit the lake, now alongside several non-native species.

Mormon pioneers settle in Utah, and discover that Utah Lake is well-stocked with food to help them survive their new environment, but they start to overharvest the lake and restock with non-native species.

June sucker start to be impacted as local settlers practice reckless fishing during spawning season. June sucker and Bonneville cutthroat trout from Utah Lake served as important food sources for early settlers of the Utah Valley.

In 1872, a dam is constructed at Jordan River turning Utah Lake into Utah’s first water storage reservoir. From the 1890s-1920s, Utah Lake becomes popular for entertainment as resorts are built on its shores with boating and other activities developing. Agriculture develops around the lake and various tributaries are moved, altered, or destroyed for irrigation needs, including the Provo River Delta and Hobble Creek.

In the 1930s, Utah Lake, along with many other areas of the country, is plagued by a severe drought. Residents describe being able to walk on the dry lake bed from American Fork to the area where Saratoga Springs is today. In 1934, the Lehi Sun newspaper reported that the depth of the lake ranged from 7 to 14 inches. 

In the 1940s-1950s, Geneva Steel and other industries use the lake to dump waste while raw sewage is commonly dumped from all communities surrounding the lake. Walleye and white bass are introduced to Utah Lake to increase sport fishing opportunities.

Passed in 1972 by the United States Congress, the Clean Water Act was designed to protect, restore, and maintain water quality. Utah Lake’s water quality had been in question for many years as local communities had used the lake to dump raw sewage and local industry like Geneva Steel also dumped waste product. In 1973, the Congress passes the Endangered Species Act, mandating that communities act to conserve and recover species in danger of extinction. Many people credit the Act as saving countless species while also protecting and maintaining wildlife habitats including forest, beaches, and wetlands, while others see it as government control with negative impacts to economic activity.

In April 1986, the June sucker is declared endangered as fewer than 1,000 fish remained in Utah Lake and its tributaries. 

From 1984 to mid 1990’s, there were initial attempts to rear and propagate captive June sucker. Several refuge populations are established at Red Butte Reservoir, Camp Creek Reservoir, and several small controlled ponds along the Wasatch Front.

In 1993, the US Fish and Wildlife Service issues a jeopardy opinion to the Bureau of Reclamation stating that continued operation of the Provo River Project (Deer Creek Reservoir and associated pipelines) would impact survival of the June sucker. This opinion changed everything for water managers on the Provo River as they would have to account for June sucker needs moving forward. The opinion was issued after water diversions left the Provo River dry, resulting in the death of adult June sucker that had entered the river to spawn.

In 1999, per an agreement between nine organizations, an implementation program was initiated to recover the endangered fish. The nine participants in the project are: Central Utah Water Conservancy District, Utah Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission, U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Provo River Water Users Association, Provo Reservoir Water Users Company, and Outdoor and Environmental Interest.

In the mid-1990s, it is estimated that there are fewer than 500 adult June sucker in Utah Lake. With the construction of the first “June sucker hatchery,” there is an increase in June sucker production capacity. In 1998, monitoring shows that June sucker are reproducing in refuge populations located at Red Butte Reservoir and Camp Creek Reservoir. Some June sucker from these populations are transported to Utah Lake to supplement wild population.

In the 2000s, public opinion surveys reveal that most people believe Utah Lake is polluted and unsafe even while Utah County experiences dramatic population growth and thus growth in the natural needs for recreation opportunities and landscapes.

June sucker first raised in hatcheries suffered from deformities, eroded fins, and poor growth, all of which likely meant very few survived when released into the lake. In 2000 to 2007, research into proper June sucker rearing methods results in identifying dietary needs, ideal rearing temperatures, and refined spawning methods. Tens of thousands of fish are stocked into Utah Lake through the 2000s.

In 2012, an analysis of PIT tag data shows spawning June sucker adults at 1,750. In 2013, a three year study begins conducted by Marsh & Associates from Tempe, Arizona, to measure the survival of the hatchery-raised June sucker using acoustic telemetry tags and passive integrated transponders (PIT). Early results of short term survival show a range of results (as high as 58% and as low as 20%) but fish mobility throughout the lake is encouraging. In 2016, after a study shows poor long-term survival of stocked fish due to timing of stocking events and impacts from avian predators, rearing techniques are adjusted to produce larger June sucker but fewer in number. Early research shows a 10-fold increase in survival of the larger fish compared to smaller stocked fish. In 2017, an analysis of June sucker PIT tag data shows continued increases in the June sucker population with over 2,300 spawning adults.

From 2014 to 2018, the State and Local Health Departments raise awareness of harmful cyanobacteria (algae) blooms on Utah Lake and other water bodies alerting public of potential health impacts from contact with such algae.

In December 2019, JSRIP submitted a proposal to reclassify June sucker from endangered to threatened as population estimates are in the thousands thanks to the joint agency efforts and partnerships. Only three other endangered fish in the United States have been downlisted; all three were eventually delisted and removed from the Endangered Species List. Moving into 2020, with sustainable protocols and studies in place, and with overwhelming success and participation from all stakeholders, the June sucker remains on the road to recovery. Local residents and business owners all can continue to reap the benefits of the June sucker story with a restored and more balanced Utah Lake ecosystem.

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See the Full History

Report a Sighting

As you enjoy Utah Lake’s unique beauty, size, and amenities, we enlist you to let us know when you spot a June sucker! We use this information as further evidence that recovery efforts are having an impact in creating a more enjoyable and sustainable Utah Lake. 

 

 

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