Back from the brink: Reintroducing once-endangered razorback suckers

August 30, 2022

What do firefighting and a threatened fish population have in common? The Bambi Bucket. Helicopters deliver water to combat wildfires using this large container suspended on a cable. This indispensable firefighting tool is also helping reintroduce razorback sucker fish populations in the Verde River Watershed.

The razorback sucker was added to the endangered species list in 1991. In Arizona, one population is currently thriving in Lake Mead, and experts from the University of Arizona and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) have identified the Verde River and Horseshoe Reservoir of central Arizona as a potential location to establish a second self-sustaining population. That's important because the razorback sucker, which has adapted to the unique desert stream environments in the Southwest, is found only in the Colorado River Basin and nowhere else on Earth.

Transferring fish from the truck
Transferring fish from one truck to another

In alignment with SRP's Habitat Conservation Plan for Horseshoe and Bartlett reservoirs, we recently partnered with the USBR, Arizona Game & Fish Department, University of Arizona and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stock the Verde River and Horseshoe Reservoir with 2,100 razorback suckers. After the fish were loaded into the Bambi Bucket, a helicopter transported them to their final destination in the Verde upstream of Horseshoe Reservoir at Sheep's Bridge.

Transferring fish from the truck
Transferring fish from the truck to the Bambi Bucket

"Because of the remoteness of where fish needed to be stocked, there's no way to get a truck up there. Using the Bambi Bucket was the only way to get fish where they needed to be," explained Marc Wicke, Senior Environmental Compliance Scientist/Engineer, Biological & Cultural Resources Services.

All the fish have passive integrated transponder tags, and 60 of the larger fish have radio telemetry tags. This technology will allow scientists to track their movements and will provide valuable data to aid in the repopulation study. Because this unique fish can grow up to 36 inches long and live for more than 40 years, the juvenile and adult fish that SRP released should be around for decades to come.

Although the razorback sucker is no longer listed as endangered, it is still considered threatened. Because of this, SRP continues its conservation efforts both to remain compliant with regulatory obligations and to be a good steward of Arizona's precious habitats and native fish and wildlife.

"The razorback sucker was historically widespread across the Colorado River Basin including the Verde and Salt Rivers, but now exists in only 8 small populations, most of which are reliant on stocking to maintain presence. Currently only Lake Mead supports a self-sustaining population, but there is potential to create a second self-sustaining population in the lower Verde River and Horseshoe Reservoir. This project plays a small part in Reclamation's mission to manage, develop, and protect water and related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner." Bill Stewart, Gila River Basin Native Fish Program Manager for U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

"SRP plays a key role in conserving and protecting our natural heritage for current and future generations," said Chuck Paradzick, Lead Policy Analyst, Environmental Policy & Strategy.