Pallid sturgeon: Reeling in the big one on the job

Greg Liebelt cradles pallid female, last caught in 1997

Greg Liebelt cradles pallid female, last caught in 1997.

Western’s Upper Great Plains region has supported recovery efforts for the pallid sturgeon since 1992 when a National Recovery Plan for the endangered fish was developed.

Now, more than 18 years later Western is still keeping its commitment. In fact, Montana Environmental Protection Specialist Greg Liebelt joined forces with Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from North Dakota to recover pallid sturgeon at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, April 26.

A total of seven boats from the two agencies, manned with two people teams, used drift nets to capture the elusive pallids. Then the pallids were taken to fish hatcheries at Miles City, Mont., and Garrison, N.D., where they can spawn and ensure the future of more pallids in the Missouri River.

Two-man boat teams use tracking devices and drift nets to capture the pallids.

Two-man boat teams use tracking devices and drift nets to capture the pallids.

During the 3-day operation, where he and his boat mate Ryan Lott, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employee, were fortunate to capture three pallids, including a female last caught in 1997, a male caught last April, and an unknown sex (thought to be a female) last caught in 1996. All three fish were just under 5 feet in length and weighed between 30 to 40 pounds. In addition to the pallids, Greg and Lott caught some other fish, including six paddlefish (one around 70 pounds), one shovel nose sturgeon that was missing its’ tail fin and numerous buffalo carp. Greg said, “You never knew what you were going to find when you started pulling up the net.”

After capturing each pallid, they placed the fish in a holding tank on the boat. “Basically we used a water trough and covered it with a tarp,” explained Greg. “Then we measured each fish for length and weight. We collected blood for analysis and clipped a portion of the fin to test for Iridovirus on the pallids caught back in 1996 and 1997.

Teams used troughs as holding tanks for the pallids

Teams used troughs as holding tanks for the pallids.

Said Greg, “The opportunity to help out with the recovery efforts of the endangered pallid sturgeon was both a rare and fulfilling experience! As a fairly substantial amount of Western’s revenue is generated from the Missouri River, it is pretty awesome to see Western’s involvement towards recovering the pallid sturgeon and seeing how it is helping to make a difference.”