GREEN RIVER - Several years ago, the federal government started a grant program to benefit wildlife and their habitats, focusing on species of greatest conservation need.
This initiative, known as the State Wildlife Grant (SWG) program, represents a collaborative effort between federal and state wildlife management agencies to address species declines before they warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Today, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is using funding from this program to gain a better understanding of many wildlife species, including a rare desert fish know as the northern leatherside chub.
Luke Schultz, nongame fisheries biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, says the department has taken advantage of the SWG program to implement projects for a variety of species - from bats and frogs, to snakes and fish.
"SWG projects have been used to document the distribution, abundance, and habitat needs of numerous sensitive species in Wyoming," Schultz said. "The program has provided valuable information to better manage many of Wyoming's sensitive species. This information may also be used to influence ESA listing decisions and has prevented some species from being listed as threatened or endangered."
Schultz says one major focus of the SWG program is to collect information on species that are poorly understood, such as the northern leatherside chub.
"The northern leatherside chub is a rare desert fish in the minnow family that has benefited directly from the SWG program in Wyoming. Northern leatherside is a species of greatest conservation need in Wyoming that lives in small streams and stock ponds in the southwestern part of the state. They only reach about 5 inches in length, but can persist in small, remnant pools in drying streams during the summer months until conditions improve. They are also typically prey for larger fish and birds."
The northern leatherside has declined across its entire range, which also includes parts of Nevada, Utah, and Idaho, to the point that the species was petitioned to be listed under the ESA in 2007. To further complicate things, very little was known about the species. The department used a SWG grant to study the distribution, abundance, genetics, and habitat preferences of northern leatherside.
"Intensive field sampling for northern leatherside began in 2010 and was completed in 2011 throughout drainages in southwest Wyoming,” Schultz said. “The project studied the distribution and habitat needs of the fish and looked for species that were found with northern leatherside. Northern leatherside was common in many places, with good numbers in Yellow, Sulphur, and La Chapelle creeks near Evanston, Twin Creek by Kemmerer, and Dry Fork of the Smiths Fork near Cokeville. Foothills streams were the most common habitat types used, but it sometimes was found in larger rivers and stock ponds."
"Northern leatherside was found with a variety of other native fishes, including mountain sucker, redside shiner, and longnose and speckled dace. Although there were numerous northern leatherside populations in the state, many of them were fairly isolated from one another - which may be a genetic concern. Genetic tissues were collected to look at diversity patterns and the potential consequences of the geographical distribution of northern leatherside in the state."
Schultz says several pieces of good news emerged as a result of this project.
"First of all, more knowledge about northern leatherside ecology was gathered, which will help with its conservation and management in Wyoming and beyond. Secondly, because of the increased information about northern leatherside and the good work done by the department and other organizations, northern leatherside was found to not require federalprotection through the ESA. For this reason, management authority of northern leatherside has been retained by the State of Wyoming. Finally, this work discovered that populations of northern leatherside in Wyoming actually represent the core range of the species. This means that Wyoming will have the unique opportunity to be the torchbearer for rangewide conservation efforts of northern leatherside. Based on previous and ongoing work in Wyoming, the fate of northern leatherside is in some of the best hands possible."
"Clearly, the State Wildlife Grant program is providing a win-win situation for both wildlife and people. Conservation efforts directed toward nongame species are necessary to maintain the high level of biodiversity that Wyoming boasts. The loss of these species would forever change the overall health of the Bear and Snake River drainages. As our understanding of these species increases, so does the likelihood that they will continue to flourish in their natural habitats. In turn, healthy wildlife populations provide innumerable benefits to the people of Wyoming."
For more information on the SWG projects near you, visit your local Game and Fish regional office. For more information about northern leatherside contact Game and Fish Regional Offices in Pinedale (1-800-452-9107), Green River (1-800-843-8096), or Jackson (1-800-423-4113).