The first thing you need to know about sturgeon is that they’ve been around for a VERY long time – about 170 million years, give or take a million. The second is that they have a very long lifespan and can live for up to 100 years. A close third is their maximum potential size and weight, with records showing evidence of 20-foot long, 1,500-pound sturgeon. The fourth thing – and the most astonishing – is that this amazing species is one of over 25 sturgeon species in the world, and like many of them, it is listed as endangered.

That’s why this summer Earth Rangers is supporting research, led by the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development, into the endangered Kootenay white sturgeon population. As part of their annual white sturgeon monitoring program, the research will help scientists monitor the small remaining wild population, as well as gain a better understanding of how well the hatchery-introduced sturgeon are doing.

technician with sturgeon

Large…but maybe not in charge

So how could such a long-lived species reach the point that it’s endangered? After all, the white sturgeon we know today survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary Mass Extinction, the famed death of the dinosaurs. They’ve also experienced a landscape change or two, including the formation of the Rocky Mountains, the Ice Age and changes in the flow of Kootenay River.

Fast forward 60 million years or so, it wasn’t until more recent times – and more human incursion – that the Kootenay white sturgeon population began to seriously decline. Major habitat changes date back to the 1950s and mid-1960s, when intensive farming altered the river and flood plain, and 1972 when the Libby Dam was completed in Montana. With this piece of infrastructure in place, river flow and water temperature changed downstream, leading to less than ideal spawning conditions and fewer overall resources to keep the population healthy.

Bringing back a dinosaur

Since the 1970s, the Government of British Columbia, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bonneville Power Administration and many other partners have been collaborating to develop methods to improve habitat for sturgeon spawn, as well as maintain sturgeon numbers and genetic diversity. In addition to working together to minimize the effects of the Libby Dam, rehabilitate in-river habitats and monitor the population, the team has helped supplement the endangered wild sturgeon population with the release of over 280,000 hatchery-reared juveniles into Kootenay River and Kootenay Lake.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development white sturgeon project we’re supporting ties into this work by evaluating the health and distribution of the hatchery population, as well as identifying any wild juveniles in the system. Through monitoring and analysis, scientists will continue to optimize the times, locations and numbers of hatchery-reared juvenile sturgeon that are released, while gaining critical insights into the overall health of the Kootenay population.

Over the next few months, expect to see a lot more info on different kinds of monitoring and sampling efforts, all designed to help this amazing fish survive another 170 million years.

And last but not least, one of the easiest ways you can support this critical work is by symbolically adopting a sturgeon – find more about it in our E-store.

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