Land transformation presents significant challenges to the health of our nation’s fish communities as these land changes have greatly altered the connectivity of riparian areas. The effects of aquatic barriers in the form of culverts, irrigation, diversions and dams can also be augmented by climate change impacts and other landscape stressors which contribute to unsustainable fish populations. Understanding how to better manage aquatic systems is critical to maintaining healthy populations. This is exactly why cutting-edge fish passage research is being headed up by a partnership between the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University (MSU) and the Bozeman Fish Technology Center (BFTC) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). This research is especially critical as it may have important implications for imperiled species including the pallid sturgeon, a federally endangered species, and the sauger, which is a species of concern in Montana, as well as native fish populations in general.
“The goal of this research is to better improve fish passage and landscape connectivity for native and sensitive species. Some of the ground work for this study has been done, but nothing to this extent,” said David Dockery, a graduate student at Montana State University studying fisheries and wildlife. Dockery is a Montana native which inspires his dedication to this project, “I love Montana, and I’ve been here my whole life. I’m very invested in Montana and restoring this area’s aquatic populations.”
Under the direction of Service fish biologist Kevin Kappenman, Dockery works as a research assistant where he plays a key role in developing studies to improve our understanding of native fish species. Leading this research effort in collaboration with Kappenman are Professor Thomas E. McMahon of MSU, and Matt Blank of the Western Transportation Institute and Civil Engineering Department.
Dockery’s research focuses on the swimming abilities of sauger,.“The hope of this study is to better understand fish swimming capabilities. Some of these species are threatened because they can’t get through fish barriers. This research has important implications for managers in terms of improving fish habitat connectivity,” Dockery said of the project. Understanding how fish swim in various conditions can help managers improve fish passage design when building or retrofitting fish passages to improve habitat conditions for swimming saugers and other native species. “Professor McMahon has been critical in developing the ideas behind this research because he specializes in fish habitat and fragmentation,” Dockery said. “We then identified studies to fill the gaps in fish swimming capabilities in order to improve the design and building of fish passages to fill the gaps.”
Working alongside Dockery at the Bozeman Fish Technology Center are two interns , Chris Forrest and Michael Stein, with unique perspectives on fisheries and wildlife conservation. Forrest and Stein are veterans of the U.S. military. Forrest was a U.S. Navy Seal for seven years and Stein was a Black Hawk pilot for the U.S. Army for ten years. After their time with the U.S. Armed Forces, both Forrest and Stein have dramatically shifted the focus of their careers to pursue their interests in fisheries and the environmental conservation.
Forrest worked as a biological technician this past summer assisting Dockery with his research project. Forrest’s experience in the U.S. Navy allows him to have a unique outlook on wildlife conservation. After his time in the U.S. Navy, Forrest decided to reconnect with his love of fishing and interest in the aquatic world.
“Having the opportunity to go back to school and study fish and wildlife management and work with the Service has given me a sense of reward because I am part of the solution to protect land and water for future generations and minimize anthropogenic effects that we have upon the land,” Forrest said about his experience.
Forrest said of Dockery’s research project, “This data is cutting edge science and it’s exciting to be on a project with a management and stewardship goal. I want to express my gratitude because of the opportunity to start a new career. I want to thank the federal government and Kevin Kappenman for giving me a second chance” said Forrest. Forrest believes that being in the U.S. Navy gave him a unique sense of appreciation and the ability to have a 100 percent follow-through with projects.
Stein has spent the last two summers working as a research assistant with Kappenman’s “spawning sturgeon in an artificial river” project at the BFTC. The sturgeon project takes place in an artificial river that is set up inside the BFTC. The stream mimics natural stream conditions, and these conditions can be manipulated within reason. The species of focus is the shovelnose sturgeon. Along with Stein, Kappenman are co-principle investigators Dr. Molly Webb (USFWS) and Dr. Chris Guy (U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Research Unit at MSU) who are studying the sturgeon behavior and habitat associated with spawning. Stein has been interested in fish his whole life, “I’ve always had two passions in life, flying and fishing”. He conquered the first passion while in the U.S. Armed Forces, but after 10 years was ready to pursue his other passion, fishing. Stein is now a student in the Fish and Wildlife Management Program at MSU.
Stein’s distinctive background as a Black Hawk pilot has provided him with an interesting perspective on conservations issues and the Service. “Working on broader issues like this is a no brainer. I’ve always been environmentally aware and have moved all over and experienced a broader sense of how connected everything is,” he said. As a pilot, Stein spent in time in Alaska and Korea. He brings a different set of skills and life experience to the table, and now has acquired a new set of skills in fisheries research and conservation. “I have a deep sense of responsibility and I am able to accomplish a mission and get it done. At the research center, it is interesting to see how things come to together, it requires many talents. This experience has provided me with a firsthand look at broad teamwork and exposure to fisheries management. It’s the whole package,” Stein said.
Stein works on just about anything related to the living stream while his main responsibilities include collecting fish on the Missouri River, data analysis, video review and fish spawning analysis. As part of his duties, Stein regularly observes the sturgeon behavior. “The hope is the observations of the shovelnose sturgeon can assist with the management of the endangered pallid sturgeon.” According to the Service, the decline of this species is attributed to the negative effects of anthropogenic activities on riverine habitat. Much of the pallid sturgeon’s historic habitat has been altered through stream resulting in deep, uniform channels which are unfavorable for the species. In addition, downstream dams have altered the river’s hydrograph, temperature, and turbidity. The goal of this study is to better understand what challenges the sturgeons face and what conditions are needed to promote spawning and recruitment. “I hope that this research sparks further research because there is a huge potential with this project to have a broad impact on sturgeons, and in particular the pallid sturgeon. This research has been effective at piecing out the puzzles,” Stein said of the project.
The results of these studies will help to improve our overall understanding of fish swimming capabilities and the preferred habitat conditions of native fish species by filling in the missing information gaps, which can then be tangibly translated into effective conservation strategies. Funding for this groundbreaking research is supported by the Mountain-Prairie Region’s Fish Passage Program, the U.S. Geological Survey Science Support Partnership and the Plains and Prairie Pothole Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC).