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Henckel Column: Who's nuts? Not me and my dog
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Mark Henckel MONTANA OUTDOORS

They were only two tiny inch-long fish, but they caused quite a stir on the Missouri River. And, in truth, they should have caused a stir.

Fisheries biologists discovered the little pallid sturgeon last fall near the headwaters of Lake Sakakawea, solid evidence that this endangered species spawned in 2002.

It's the first evidence in the past 40 years that natural spawning produced young pallids in this portion of the species' range, which includes the Missouri below Fort Peck Dam and the Yellowstone.

The discovery was so rare - and little pallids look so much like little shovelnose sturgeon - that it took verification by an expert to prove their identification. That verification came through this spring.

How important could the discovery be? If any of these young pallids' brothers and sisters survive to adulthood, it's hugely important.

Biologists say the wild population below Fort Peck Dam and the lower Yellowstone River is estimated at less than 166 fish, while fewer than 25 pallid sturgeon exist in the Missouri upstream of Fort Peck. So few pallid sturgeon remain in Montana that biologists say nearly every adult is known to them.

Pallid sturgeon can grow to 80 pounds and more than five feet in length. They live 40 or more years and likely don't begin spawning until they're about 15 years old.

Without solid evidence of successful spawning, pallids are being raised at hatcheries in North Dakota and at Miles City in Montana to try to boost their populations. But you have to remember that hatchery pallids released this year won't spawn until the year 2018.

Research on this endangered species is being conducted on the Missouri below Fort Peck Dam and the Yellowstone by Pat Braaten, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Geologic Survey, Dave Fuller, a FWP technician whose crew found the young pallids, and Wade King, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota. FWP's Bill Gardner heads the effort on pallids above Fort Peck Lake.

Biologists fear that flows in the lower Missouri River are not consistently adequate to trigger spawning and that any larvae that are produced probably drift downstream into Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir environment in which the larvae cannot survive.

It's not a great long-term outlook for pallid sturgeon - but even finding just two little ones is good news.

Pallid sturgeon like this one have successfully spawned in the wild for the first time in a long time.

Application deadline near The application deadline for Montana antelope and deer B hunting licenses and special deer and elk permits will be June 2 this year because June 1 falls on a weekend.

Hunters must have their applications postmarked by June 2 to be eligible for the August drawings.

Hunters can also apply for the licenses through the new automated licensing system at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional offices, where the information will be sent electronically to Helena.

Applications are available at license agents across the state or through the FWP Web site at www.fwp.state.mt.us.

Be careful out there With the heavy boating and floating season expected to begin for the year this weekend, here are some reminders to keep you safe on the water:

Always wear a life jacket;

Observe no-wake rules and boat at a reasonable speed;

Always be on the watch for other boaters and swimmers;

Don't mix alcohol or drugs and boating;

Review boating regulations before you go out; and

Take an approved boating safety course.

Montana had a high of 14 boating fatalities in 1996 and a low of five fatalities in 2001, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. There have already been two boating fatalities this year with the death of a couple fishing on a charter boat on Flathead Lake.

Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted by phone at: (406) 657-1395, or by e-mail at: henckel@billingsgazette.com

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