Whenever you need a little good news about our natural resources, just take a few minutes to catch up on lake sturgeon in the Winnebago System of east-central Wisconsin.
Recent analysis by the Department of Natural Resources, for instance, revealed that 9.5 percent of sturgeon taken from Lake Winnebago during February’s spearing season weighed more than 100 pounds, which is a record. In contrast, sturgeon biologists in the 1950s and ’60s believed the population was healthy if more than 1 percent of adult sturgeon, or the annual kill, exceeded 100 pounds.
Then, just a few weeks ago, DNR and Menominee Indian biologists found proof that this prehistoric fish is naturally reproducing in the Wolf River north of Shawano for the first time since 1893. That’s when construction of the Shawano dam on the Wolf blocked sturgeon from their ancestral spawning grounds at Keshena Falls on the Menominee Indian Reservation.
More on sturgeon season: More headlines and video | Tweets collected during the season | Browse photos from the 2013 season | Browse photos from the 2012 season | Share your sturgeon photos | Watch cameras on the Wolf River | Watch cameras positioned in Stockbridge
Of course, the Shawano dam remains and sturgeon still can’t hurdle it during their spring spawning runs, but biologists found a way to restore sturgeon above the dam to end the tribe’s 120-year sturgeon drought. The proof? A crew of state, federal and tribal biologists captured and verified 10 larval lake sturgeon at Keshena Falls this spring.
That discovery verifies that sturgeon moved by fisheries crews from below the Shawano dam to the Keshena Falls area in recent years have spawned the past two springs around the rock-strewn falls. The most recent “transplanted” sturgeon were the first two installments of a 10-year agreement between the DNR and tribe to move 100 sturgeon annually about 10 miles upriver from Shawano.
That’s the latest chapter in a 20-plus-year effort between the state and Menominees to restore a tangible link between the tribe and sturgeon, a fish that’s part of the Menominee’s creation story. Their Bear Clan includes a Sturgeon sub-clan, a group that believes sturgeon are the keeper of wild rice. They also believe the Creator sends sturgeon upriver each spring to provide the Menominee people sustenance and medicines.
DNR staff and the Menominees began efforts to restore sturgeon in 1993. They transferred sturgeon upriver from 1995 through 2006, but suspended the program when finding viral hemorrhagic septicemia in Lake Winnebago. When scientists concluded in 2010 that VHS doesn’t affect sturgeon, the program resumed in 2011.
Also starting in 1993, DNR crews began providing fish to the Menominees each spring for ceremonial feasts, which are open to the public. These centuries-old feasts, now held at the Menominee Indian High School in Keshena, include the traditional “fish dance,” which mimics sturgeon moving upriver to spawn.
For centuries, the tribes harvested sturgeon during the brief spring spawning run to help replenish their meat supplies. During the past two years, the tribe harvested 15 of the 100 sturgeon released into the upper Wolf.
In comparison, spearers on the Winnebago System have averaged 1,075 sturgeon the past five seasons.
The Menominees call Keshena Falls, “Nama’o Uskiwamut,” which translates to “sturgeon spawning place,” and believe the site holds spiritual significance. Each spring when water from the Northwoods’ snow-melt swells the Wolf River and rushes through Keshena Falls, the “manitou” spirit living there pounds his drum to call the sturgeon to spawn. Historically, tribal members then gathered to await the spawners’ return.
The Menominees believe the sturgeon’s return is a sign their tribe will prosper in the years ahead. At the least, this most recent return revives their long dormant sturgeon ceremonies, which were nearly forgotten in the century after the Shawano dam’s construction.
“With the lack of fish there for so long, they lost … the interaction with the sturgeon on this stretch of the river,” said Ryan Koenigs, the DNR’s chief sturgeon biologist in Oshkosh. “Bringing fish back to this place allows their younger generation to reconnect with the sturgeon’s cultural importance.”
Female sturgeon spawn every four or five years, but as with most fish, few of their eggs generate young sturgeon. In fact, as few as one in 1,000 eggs hatch under normal conditions. Male sturgeon take at least 14 years to mature, and female sturgeon do not spawn until 21 to 39 years old.
Some sturgeon will still leave the reservation’s section of the Wolf through access pipes in the Shawano dam. It’s expected, however, that enough will live year-round in the Upper Wolf to sustain the population.
Through the DNR’s work with the Menominees, we see once again that conservation means wise use, not simple, uncompromising protectionism. That’s worth celebrating, too.
Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for Press-Gazette Media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.