What do you do with a fish species that can't seem to reproduce on its own and is headed toward extinction because of it? You help it along as much as you can. That means you look to fish hatcheries to supplement the ailing population.
That's what pallid sturgeon biologists have been doing since the mid-1990s, raising fish at Montana's State Warm Water Fish Hatchery at Miles City and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Garrison National Hatchery in North Dakota and Gavins Point National Hatchery in South Dakota.
It's a gamble that might work - and might not - in helping to save the species.
"With all the work we've been doing since the 1980s, it's a lot like looking into the window of a house," said Steve Krentz, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supervisory biologist in Bismarck who leads the nation's Pallid Sturgeon Recovery Team.
"If you look in one window, you only see one room. Until you look in all the windows, you don't know all of what's in the house. We've started looking in a lot of windows. I think we're starting to get a better look at all of what goes into the world of the pallid sturgeon.
"We've been stocking pallid sturgeon since 1998. Since then, we've put in about 4,500 pallids above Fort Peck and 4,500 in below Fort Peck," he said.
Sturgeon have been released below other dams on the Missouri River system as well.
"Our biologists are starting to pick up some of those stocked fish," Krentz said. "The ones stocked in 1998 are running 1.5 to 2 pounds in weight right now. Kevin Kapuscinski (the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist for the Missouri below Fort Peck Dam) has caught somewhere between 14 and 17 of them. Bill Gardner (the FWP biologist for the the Missouri above Fort Peck) has caught 20-plus of them. And in South Dakota, they caught 22 in one day.
"It's indicating that we are getting survival," Krentz said. "We're getting them past the first hump in terms of mortality. As six-year-olds, they are still surviving."
Eggs for the hatcheries have been collected each spring from the few remaining wild female pallid sturgeon in the Missouri below Fort Peck and the lower reaches of the Yellowstone River. The eggs have been fertilized with sperm from the wild males. But it's a tough project each year for biologists to gather these eggs.
Biologists use drift nets which are spread across the current, then drift downstream. Fish are captured in the net as it drifts into them. But it takes many, many, many drifts to catch each pallid sturgeon.
"When you get out on the river and try to catch these things, it's like finding a needle in a haystack," said Ken McDonald, special projects bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the chairman of the Upper Missouri River Basin Pallid Sturgeon Recovery Group. "It's a big river and you cover a lot of water to find them."
But even though the stocking program is proving that pallids can still live in the river and boost sturgeon numbers, it hasn't proven that raising sturgeon at hatcheries will lead to reproductive success.
"It takes pallid sturgeon a long time to mature. Females don't spawn for the first time until they 15 to 20 years old," Krentz said. "The big question is whether or not in another 10 years or so, these fish will come back to spawn. Will they have the instincts and capability to produce the next generation?"
McDonald also wonders whether the stocking program is following the best course of action for the species.
"There are so many things we don't know about pallid sturgeon," McDonald said. "Do they imprint on the water where they're born like salmon do? Maybe we should try some remote site incubators, putting the eggs in an incubator in the water where we want them to return to spawn? Put them way up the Marias River below Tiber Dam? Put them way up the Missouri?
"Would we be better off stocking fry or fingerlings? Should we expand our horizons with the hatchery program to get more numbers?," he said.
"One of our problems is that this species has fallen off so much in numbers. This year, despite all our netting efforts, we only caught a total of five females and could only get eggs out of one that were really good," McDonald said.
Krentz described the hatchery program as a good thing that needs to be done. It does get more pallid sturgeon out there in the Missouri River. But he's quick to add that it's only a temporary, band-aid approach to the real problem.
"Mother Nature can do it a whole lot better than we can," Krentz said. "All we're doing is buying some time. The real recovery has to come from habitat restoration - then the pallid sturgeon can spawn on their own and insure their own survival as a species."
Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. He can be contacted at 657-1395 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.