Tag Archives: Nebraska Game and Parks

Kiss an Endangered Fish

March 23, 2018 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

Trotlines catch every bottom-feeding fish imaginable in the Missouri River: channel catfish, freshwater drum, shovelnose sturgeon. Even the occasional blue sucker. But this boat’s crew of biologists and volunteers seek one rarity—the endangered pallid sturgeon.

Watching the line of hooks rise from the water, Dave Crane spots the prize. “Pallid!” he shouts, excitedly, as thick and bony cartilage plates breach the river’s surface.

He and three friends work in unison to pull the 200-foot line on board. Crane carefully removes the pallid sturgeon from a hook; then he passes the precious specimen to a Game & Parks staffer to take its measurements, weigh the fish on a digital scale, and check for hatchery-implanted tags.

“Looks like a shipper,” says fishery biologist Dane Pauley, as the sturgeon goes into a water tank on the boat. Pauley is one of four Game & Parks crew leaders checking trotlines between the Plattsmouth and Nebraska City boat ramps on April 9, 2017, during the annual pallid sturgeon recovery effort known as Broodstock.

A large pallid sturgeon on the scale

A “shipper” (i.e., slang for any sexually mature pallid sturgeon that is not hatchery-raised or has not been previously captured) is a sturgeon that the Game & Parks staff will send to a regional hatchery to ensure that its genetic stock is preserved and repopulated in the river ecosystem.

“I’ve been volunteering with Broodstock every year since 2009,” says Crane, a biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers. “As someone who works on planning and constructing Missouri River habitat restoration projects for a living, it’s a real treat getting hands-on with the fish and seeing firsthand the kind of biological response we’re having. My fieldwork doesn’t typically involve fish; I love getting out on the river like this.”

Broodstock collection—a regional conservation effort—is part of a larger, nationwide pallid sturgeon recovery initiative funded by the Army Corps of Engineers. Local participants include regional and federal stakeholders: Nebraska Game & Parks, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, volunteers from various state agencies, university biology professors, and students (along with their friends and family).

It’s not every day you come face-to-face with one of the American interior’s most endangered species. If you have the opportunity, be prepared to pucker up. Posing for a photo with a pallid sturgeon—and giving the fish a smoocheroo—has become a tradition on the Game & Parks’ boats.

“I’ve probably kissed a sturgeon at least three or four times. Only when we get a bigger one,” says Tim Shew, one of several friends that Crane has introduced to volunteering with Broodstock. “What has been really cool is that we have seen the effect of the program. There are a lot more and bigger pallids than when I started six years ago. Also more wild born. We never saw those for the first couple years.”

Dave Crane carefully handles a pallid sturgeon.

After checking 10 trotlines attached to buoys along the river, the boat crew has captured two shippers, and they caught-and-released countless non-targeted rough fish and hatchery-raised pallid sturgeon. When the boat stops on the side of the river for a sack lunch, it’s almost time to re-bait worms on 400 hooks to be replaced in the river for the next day’s crews.

By the end of the day, volunteers will have a dozen photos of themselves kissing a variety of fish—not just pallid sturgeon. Game & Parks staff record data on every fish pulled out of the water; it has become a valuable data set not only on the endangered species, but the entire Missouri River fishery.

Shipper sturgeons are transported via Game & Parks trucks (with water tanks), heading north to Gavin’s Point Fish Hatchery. After spawning in captivity, the adult fish will return to the river. Their offspring will remain in the tanks until the following spring when the space is needed for the next year’s broodstock.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, pallid sturgeon are “bottom-dwelling, slow-growing fish that feed primarily on small fish and immature aquatic insects. This species of sturgeon is seldom seen and is one of the least understood fish in the Missouri and Mississippi River drainages.”

Pallid sturgeon are strange-looking creatures with bony back plates, skeletal cartilage rather than bones (common among ancient fish), a reptilian-like tail, and a pointy snout (that is more narrow than its close relative, the shovelnose sturgeon). They have been documented living longer than 60 years and weighing more than 80 pounds. As an endangered fish, they are also illegal to catch and possess (unless you are participating in Broodstock or a similar government-sanctioned recovery effort).

Their fossils date back to the days of dinosaurs, and the fish have likely been swimming the Missouri River as far back as the river has existed. But in the modern era—following rampant dam construction and the Army Corps of Engineers’ channelization of the river for shipping and flood control in the mid-20th century—the pallid sturgeon population collapsed.

Nebraska Game & Parks staff and volunteers during the 2017 Broodstock

Kirk Steffensen is the coordinator of the Broodstock effort on Nebraska’s stretch of the Missouri River. A fisheries biologist with the Nebraska Game & Parks, he has managed regional pallid sturgeon recovery efforts since 2002.

“Before the river was highly engineered and managed, that spring pulse of water [from upstream snowmelt] usually cued sturgeon to make their migration run to the spawning grounds,” Steffensen says. “Now that the river is so regulated and managed, they don’t get that pulse anymore.”

The fish still make spawning runs. They just aren’t very successful. Dams block their migration, and mankind’s reshaping of the river has degraded remaining spawning habitats.

Seeking to reverse the species collapse, the government listed pallid sturgeon as a federal endangered species in 1990. A recovery plan went into effect soon after.

“Since their populations were so low and diminished,” Steffensen says, “it was decided that we need to supplement the population through capturing wild fish in the river, transporting them to a hatchery facility and spawning them, and then rearing their progeny up to a bigger size—so that when we stock them back in the river, they have a higher rate of survival.”

Starting in 1992, pallid sturgeon stocking began from local populations supplemented by fish from upstream (sourced from the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers near the Montana-North Dakota border). But it wasn’t until spring 2002 that Steffensen says Nebraska Game & Parks ramped up its pallid sturgeon stocking efforts. That lasted until scientists realized “that, genetically, fish in the upper basin are just slightly different than down in our reach of the river into the middle Mississippi River,” he says.

A 2007 federal moratorium on stocking upper basin fish in the lower Missouri followed. Suddenly, downstream recovery efforts faced heightened pressure to gather all the pallid sturgeon needed to stock lower stretches of the river from local fish.

“That’s when this whole thing developed of bringing in volunteers to maximize our efforts,” Steffensen says. “So we began fishing these local fish and shipping them to the area hatcheries so they could spawn them in their facilities and maintain our stocking program in this lower reach of the Missouri River.”

Game & Parks boats monitor pallid sturgeon in the Missouri nine months out of the year, but it is only during the 11 days of Broodstock that they will capture the fish to send to hatcheries. It is also only during this time when volunteers can get in on the action. Broodstock normally takes place in late April, but the 2018 dates were not confirmed when this March/April edition of Omaha Magazine went to press.

There’s a four-person volunteer limit per boat. And the slots fill up quick. Steffensen estimates that the weekend volunteering spots are usually snapped up within an hour or two of his initial call for volunteers via e-mail.

Boats from Nebraska Game & Parks

In 2017, they had 167 volunteers—many of whom worked two or three days. More than 700 individuals have volunteered with Broodstock since they began accepting volunteer participants in 2008.

“We go rain or shine,” Steffensen says. “Back in ’09, we had to cancel one day because we had a snowstorm come in. Otherwise we endure rain, wind, temperatures. After we set the gear one afternoon, we have to get it out of the water the next morning so we don’t harm any fish. We operate under endangered species handling protocol, and we are limited to having these trotlines in the water for only 24 hours.”

They operate four or five boats each day to check approximately 10 trotlines per boat. Each line, connected to a buoy in the river, has about 40 hooks baited with worms.

With four or five boats in the water each day, crews are running 17,600-22,000 hooks during the brief 11-day window of Broodstock. Steffensen says they select the program’s date range a month or two in advance to anticipate when pallid sturgeon will make their spring migration to spawn.

“It’s really a unique effort that we do here. You always hear about endangered species: Don’t approach them; don’t touch them; they are for observation only. But that’s birds and mammals, where you can look at them with spotting scope and binoculars. With fish, you have to pull them out of the water to tag, and you actually handle them. We get a lot of that message from volunteers—that this is awesome,” Steffensen says, adding that the stocking effort would not be possible at its current level without the outpouring of volunteer support.

Since 1992, Game & Parks has introduced approximately 177,000 hatchery-reared pallid sturgeon. More than 94,000 of those hatchery fish were introduced through the Broodstock program that began in 2008.

Although the fish remains listed as endangered at the state and federal level, Steffensen is cautiously optimistic: “Overall, our catch suggests that the wild fish who were naturally spawned and lived in the river their whole life appear stable.”

Due to high demand, the opportunity to participate in Broodstock is not advertised. Anyone wishing to volunteer can request to be included in the email notice by contacting fisheries biologist Kirk Steffensen at kirk.steffensen@nebraska.gov.

From left: Dave Crane and Tim Shew share a kiss with an endangered pallid sturgeon.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Morel of the Story

April 5, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs
Illustration by Mady Besch

Morel-mania usually begins around mid-to-late April. Inconsistent Midwestern weather prevents forecasting the exact start of morel mushroom season year-to-year.

Morel (aka morchella) mushrooms begin to flush en masse when spring rains alternate with patches of sunshine atop warming ground temperatures.

Morels are distinctive and easy to identify, with their porous and sponge-like brownish heads atop tan/white stems. Their caps might also be described as honeycombed and cone-shaped; they come in grey (smaller) and yellow (larger) varieties.

Foodies covet the delicious morsels of fungal delight. Morels are known for a unique nutty flavor. Popular recipes include: battered and deep-fried, scrambled with eggs, used as garnish, or dried for later consumption.

As a general rule, the morel season coincides with the blooming of lilacs. Morels also return to the same place every year—if their mycelium underground remains healthy. That means avid mushroom hunters often keep their favorite spots a secret.

If you see one morel, stop. Slow down and scan the ground. They grow in clusters. Morels hide in the deep woods, near the bases of old-growth trees, overturned trunks, and decomposing vegetation. They pop from grassy areas, near the banks of rivers, and on hillsides.

Along with monitoring lilac bushes, paying attention to the weather forecast helps foragers to prepare for morel season. Be ready for periods of sudden downpours of rain combined with warm daytime temperatures (70 degrees or more) and nights that linger above 40 degrees for at least four days in a row.

If you anticipate a sunny day following a torrential spring downpour, get ready. Put on your rain jacket, and rush to your favorite mushrooming spot as soon as the rains lift.

Grab some good mud boots (or old sneakers), and make sure you have a mesh bag that allows the mushrooms’ spores to escape and spread. Local outdoors shops sell mesh bags for morels. Onion or potato sacks from the grocery store also work well.

If you’ve never been mushroom hunting, it’s time to start begging friends to show you how. Or, do a little research and go explore any publicly accessible backwoods along local rivers.

There are several popular local destinations for morel hunters. But any densely vegetated public land (with plenty of overturned trees) along the Missouri River or Platte River could yield a plentiful haul of morels. That is, if the area hasn’t been picked over already.

The website morels.com hosts a useful and interesting Nebraska forum. Other useful resources can be found at thegreatmorel.com, morelhunters.com, and the “Nebraska Morels” Facebook group.

Beware of gun-toting hunters in the woods. Morel season corresponds with the spring turkey hunting season. Also, avoid trespassing. Common courtesy (and the law) necessitates seeking permission to hunt for mushrooms on private property.

Remember that wild mushrooms can be deadly. Only pick and cook mushrooms you can identify with complete confidence. Search online for “false morels” and make sure you can tell the difference. False morels are poisonous.

In 2016, the website of Nebraska Game and Parks maintained weekly morel reports from April 13 through May 11. The Game and Parks website also provides tips for locating morels, and even suggests a few popular mushroom hunting grounds.

Proactive scouting is a good strategy—if only to monitor the human traffic in the woods. The morel season around Omaha usually only lasts from two to four weeks, depending on weather conditions. Sometimes the peak of the season takes place in May.

Evidence of over-picked stems and decaying mushrooms indicate that the morel season is well progressed.

Remember: if you share a mushroom hunting spot with a “friend,” there is a very good chance they will tell someone else. Then, all those other folks might just go pick all the morels while you’re stuck at work, in school, or caught in some other less fulfilling endeavor.

Heed the moral of this morel story. When the lilacs bloom, somebody is probably picking over your favorite morel grounds. So, if you’ve got a good spot, consider keeping it a secret.

Visit outdoornebraska.gov/morel for more information.

Morel Mushroom Hunting Sites

Suggested by Nebraska Game and Parks:

Public areas near rivers:

  • Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
  • Indian Cave State Park
  • Louisville State Recreation Area
  • Platte River State Park
  • Schramm Park State Recreation Area
  • Two Rivers State Recreation Area

Old-growth forests and creeks at:

  • Branched Oak State Recreation Area
  • Burchard Wildlife Management Area
  • Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area
  • Pawnee Lake State Recreation Area
  • Twin Lakes Wildlife Management Area
  • Yellow Banks Wildlife Management Area

 

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.