The return of the ‘dinosaur fish’ to the Grand Canyon

The razorback sucker is one awesome critter — a pre-historic river runner that is so flat-out cool it would even make a hardened skeptic wonder whether it is the handiwork of a higher power having a particularly good day.

The fish, can grow to an expansive 3 feet in length, and can live as long as 40 years.

For 5 million years (give or take), the razorback, named for the unmistakable humpty hump just behind its head, has roamed the mighty Colorado River and its tributaries. Five million years is a long time ago, about the same period that the very same Colorado River finished a 10 million year-long journey of cutting a free-flowing path from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Neither Nemo nor Jaws, this sucker is old school — as in, pure Jurassic-looking. As one Western fish-watcher recently told the L.A. Times, “In terms of river monsters, it’s probably more dinosaur fish.”

That’s what makes the fish so intriguing, to me at least.  It is from then, but it is here, now.

Word of the razorback splashed on the pages of the Times and other Western newspapers last week when biologists found a razor alive and flopping in the Grand Canyon for the first time in 20 years.

Once prevalent in the mighty Colorado and its tributaries, the razorback sucker’s population has dwindled dramatically since the 1950s. The razorback has long been identified as endangered.

Until last week, most experts believed the fish had been extirpated from the waters of the Grand Canyon. That’s why last week’s news was big for those who track such things. A return of the razorback to the Grand Canyon is probably proof of a more broad-scale return of the species as a whole.

I first learned about the endangered dinosaur fish when I was a young natural resources staffer in Congress. It wasn’t a biologist or a Sierra Club card carrier who first acquainted me with the fish, either.

Every year, water managers from around the West trek to Washington, D.C., and state capitals to seek federal and state funds for various programs to recover the razorback and three other endangered fish that call the Colorado home. Like anyone else, I’m sure the operators of the region’s largest utilities and water districts are duly impressed by the biology and longevity of the fish, but their real motive in seeking funding for the fish recovery program — as they will readily tell you — is to protect their water users from an unpleasant raft of draconian restrictions under the Endangered Species Act.

So each year state, federal and non-government actors win and spend millions of dollars propagating and protecting the species.

Environmentalists who rally in the name of the fish like to blame coal mines, power plants, oil and gas drilling and dams along the Colorado River for the sucker’s plummeting population. I’m sure they too are duly impressed by the fish. It’s just that, to them, the fish serves ulterior purposes, too.

While habitat fragmentation caused by ditches, dams and diversions has obviously contributed to the decline of the fish, the largest contributor fish is the large-scale introduction of certain game fish to the Colorado River over the last couple generations — game fish that are predators to the razorback.

That’s part of what makes the breakthrough discovery of a razorback sucker in the Grand Canyon so exciting. Through a combination of human genius and the apparent gritty determination coded somewhere in the DNA of the fish, there is evidence that the razorback is on the rebound — and without the draconian steps that environmentalists would like or that the Endangered Species Act might otherwise require.

This is good news, and not only because it undermines the arguments of those who say the only way to save the razorback is to stop building power plants and put the clamps on game fishing along the Colorado. In truth, news of the return of this 5-million-year-old species to the rough waters of the Grand Canyon is exciting for no reason other than its own sake. The razorback sucker is one amazing creature, and we will have done something good if we can help it remain for a million more.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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