DNR Stocks Sturgeon in Free-Flowing Baraboo River

by Free Speech on July 16, 2010

Lodi, WI~

Lodi Valley News serving Lodi, WI & the Lake Wisconsin area with local information since Earth Day 2008.

River Currents
by Gary Engberg
©2010 Gary Engberg Outdoors

Sturgeon fingerlings prior to release into the Baraboo River.

Sturgeon fingerlings prior to release into the Baraboo River.

The Baraboo River flows about 100 miles from its headwaters near Hillsboro to its confluence with the Wisconsin River south of Portage. This unique watershed encompasses 650 square miles or 415,000 acres. The river drops over 150 feet in elevation from Hillsboro to Baraboo with forty-five feet of the gradient coming in the couple mile stretch of the river that runs through the City of Baraboo. The early settlers recognized the steep gradient for its potential to generate mechanical power and this area became known as the “Baraboo Rapids.” Soon, white settlers began displacing the Native Americans and by the mid 1800’s the first of five dams were constructed on the Baraboo River. These dams drove the local economy by providing the power for powering grist, lumber, and other milling businesses.

The dam construction turned the Baraboo Rapids area of the river from a fast-moving body of water with a significant fishery into a group of slow-moving impoundments with a silted in bottom and little fish habitat and fish with the exception of catfish and carp. Before the introduction of the dams, the swift flow from the river kept the sediments from collecting on the river’s bottom and supplied a steady supply of oxygen to a thriving fishery. The rapidly developing age of agriculture combined with the slow current and deep pools caused by the dams allowed silt to cover the Baraboo River’s bottom. The silt covered up the aquatic habitat which kept the invertebrates present and the fish that they helped support. The only time that fish migration occurred was during periods of high water and flooding, other than that fish migration through the Baraboo Rapids for native species like the lake sturgeon ceased to exist.

Over the years, two of the dams were removed and exposed part of the original “Baraboo Rapids.” There were now three remaining dams on the river. One dam was owned by the city (the Waterworks Dam) and the other two were owned by a private individual.

During the mid 1990’s, a DNR study discovered vast differences in fish populations and fish diversity above and below the dams. Ten different fish species were found below the last dam and not between or above the other dams. These fish included; walleye, sauger, burbot, and lake sturgeon. Then at about the same time, the WDNR found many deficiencies in the structure, maintenance, and flood routing capacity of the city owned Waterworks Dam. After bring in an outside consultant firm, it was determined that the dam was of no economic value and would cost too much to repair. The City of Baraboo decided to remove the dam with the backing of the WDNR, the local canoe club, the River Alliance of Wisconsin, and many other groups who supported the dam removal for recreational, environmental, and economic benefits. But, there were also some locals who thought the river would be reduced to a “trickle.”

The Wisconsin DNR began negotiations to acquire both the Linen Mill and Oak Street Dams for eventual removal. Both of these dams had been converted over the years to hydroelectric dams which now were under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Their regulations required hydro dams to be licensed every 50 years. These dams had never been licensed and were required to do so. Upon examination, these dams were discovered to be in worse shape than the city dam. The WDNR seeing the huge financial liability that the owner faced coupled with the environmental potential from removing all three dams, was successful in acquiring the private dams.

Two volunteers working on the banks of the Baraboo River to release sturgeon fingerlings

Two volunteers working on the banks of the Baraboo River to release sturgeon fingerlings

The city Waterworks Dam was destroyed in 1998 and in the early 2000’s the other two dams in the Baraboo Rapids area were removed, plus another dam 40 miles upstream in LaValle leaving 120 miles of free-running river for the first time in over 170 years. This is the longest river restoration project in the country. The changes to the river happened quickly and were very dramatic. The first high water helped wash away much of the bottom sediment, vegetation grew quickly along the banks, and dozens of fish species returned to the rapids that again flowed freely through the City of Baraboo. Matthew Catalano, a WDNR fish researcher, said that the river went from a fair to poor fishery to a good to excellent fishery with the Baraboo River improving dramatically in its environment. Much of this improvement happened within a few years of the dam’s removal including the emergence of a smallmouth bass fishery that requires high quality conditions and habitat.

The WDNR has rebuilt and renovated much of the Wild Rose Fish Hatchery which has been where the state has raised its salmon and trout for the huge Lake Michigan fishery. The renovation was begun in 2006 and continued in stages till this past year when the new cold water facilities and 14 new rearing ponds for pike, walleye, muskies, and sturgeon were completed. The new facilities are providing fish for stocking this year. The hatchery happened to have some “extra” lake sturgeon that were hatched and raised at the hatchery this year.

WDNR Fisheries Technician, Dan Fuller, along with help from Lead Fisheries Biologist, Scot Stewart, got the bonus or extra sturgeons which hatched from female sturgeon eggs taken below the Wisconsin Dells Dam and hatched at the new and renovated hatchery. The young fry of the year were taken from the Wild Rose Hatchery to the Baraboo River last Wednesday, July 7th. The young lake sturgeons were trucked to Baraboo and the river to be released at seven different locations along the Baraboo River. The young sturgeon were mostly 1 to 2 inch fish that were returned to waters where they had been absent for many, many decades. There were over 6100 lake sturgeon released into the Baraboo River with hope that they can again spawn and travel freely up and down the river. The sturgeons that I saw released were freed just down from the Circus World Museum and the “Baraboo Rapids.”  The rest of the sturgeons were released above and below the Rapids and the City of Baraboo.

This is not a “formal” restoration project for the lake sturgeon because to do a study and try to restore the fish would take a project of at least 25 years according to WDNR expert and technician, Dan Fuller. Sturgeons are a slow growing fish that don’t reach sexual maturity till they are 20 to 25 years old. A mature lake sturgeon can live to be over 100 years old and there are sturgeons in the Lake Winnebago systems that are over 200 pounds. The first year is an exception where the small fish grow to over a foot feeding on small organisms and invertebrates in the river system environment. Lake sturgeons are native to both the Wisconsin and Baraboo Rivers.

Personally, this could be another successful restoration project that I hope succeeds. But, giving the slow growth of the lake sturgeon I doubt if many of us will be alive to see if the fish return to spawn and reproduce in the Baraboo River. If interested, you may go to my website (www.garyengbergoutdoors.com) and scroll back a few pages to July 8 and watch videos from the release with interviews from the WDNR’s Scot Stewart and Dan Fuller.

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