Friday, August 27, 2004

Mystery fish spurs research

Study to answer key questions about endemic Wood River sculpin

Express Staff Writer

Biologists are working stretches of river throughout the Big Wood watershed in an ef-fort to compile the first study about the Wood River sculpin, a species of fish that is endemic to the area. Albertson College of Idaho researcher Don Zaroban (pictured with the bucket) is heading the study. Photo by David N. Seelig

It?s been 111 years since a small bottom-dwelling fish called the Wood River sculpin was first documented in the clear, cold waters of the Big Wood River near Shoshone. But scientists still can?t answer some of the most basic questions about the species, which can only be found in the Big Wood River water-shed.

?Basically nobody knows anything about them,? said Wood River Land Trust Projects Coordinator Stef Frenzl. ?That?s why we?re interested in it. Be-cause it only lives here, that means its needs are fairly acute.?

The Wood River Land Trust is one of a number of organizations and agencies coordinating with University of Idaho Ph.D. researcher and Alberson Col-lege of Idaho Fisheries Scientist Don Zaroban to quantify some of the most basic baseline information about the curious-looking little fish.

Beginning in June, Zaroban embarked on a three-year study that will include the Little Wood and Big Wood rivers and Camas Creek. On Thursday morning, he and a team of researchers worked their way through knee-deep water in the Big Wood River near McHanville, using equipment designed to stun fish with a 400-watt charge. Seven researchers waded up the river netting stunned fish and depositing them in buckets.

?Where do they occur? What are their habitat needs? How much do they move?? Zaroban asked, explaining some of the key questions he hopes to answer.

During this first season, Zaroban is collecting fish to count and measure them and record the types of habitat they inhabit. The second step will be to create a model based on the data collected this summer. Finally, researchers will tag fish and track them throughout their range.

?We don?t know how far these fish move, so if we did a project to benefit the species, we don?t know how to do that,? Zaroban said.

Although little is know about the fish biologically, anglers in the area are familiar with Wood River sculpin. While fishing a stretch of the Big Wood River some 12 years ago, Lost River Outfitters owner Scott Schnebly and his son, Blake, had a revelation. After Blake captured about five of the fish with his hands, his father went home and found some pheasant feathers, which he dyed a rust color to imitate the sculpin.

The streamer pattern he tied immediately landed about seven trout in a reach of river the pair were unsuccessfully fishing hours before.

?The curious thing about the fly (which he called the Philo Betto) is that it?s caught steelhead, bonefish, bass, a number of species,? Scott Schnebly said.

One of they key aspects to working on the sculpin study is to try to be proactive, said Rob Taylor, a water protection specialist with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. The fish, currently qualified as a ?species of special concern,? may or may not require additional Clean Water Act or Endangered Species Act protections, he said.

In his research so far, Zaroban has netted as many as 200 sculpin in a given reach of river. He said the fish prefer areas with riffles, moderate stream flows and small cobbles. They eat aquatic insects and small fish.

?If there?s lots of sand, you don?t find them,? he said. ?They are a cavity dweller. They are very poor swimmers because they do not have an air bladder like trout and other species.?

Zaroban hesitated to expand much more than that. He said the study is still in its infancy.

?We don?t know if we?re getting more of them or fewer of them. It?s a baseline survey on a non-game fish.?

Zaroban said a number of agencies and organizations are helping with the study, ranging from the Bureau of Land Management, Environmental Protection Agency, University of Idaho, Sawtooth National Forest and Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

As for the Wood River Land Trust?s involvement, the Zaroban?s study will fold nicely into a separate study the land trust is doing on the overall health of the Big Wood River, said Dan Gilmore, the organization?s community outreach director.

?The long-term goal is to use this to help with our long-term land protection and work along the river,? Gilmore said. ?For us, this is an extension of the Upper Big Wood River Fishery and Habitat Assessment.?

Frenzl elaborated.

?The hope is that it will tell us more about the general needs of the fish,? he said. ?The reality is, we don?t know anything.?

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