Ending a 250-Million-Year Run

by Ben Long

It isn't easy being a cheerleader for a bottom-feeder, but I'm feeling up to the task. Montana's two varieties of sturgeon -- a miraculous, prehistoric fish that feeds at the bottom of lakes and rivers --have recently been given an expiration date. That means we now have an official prediction of when they will go extinct -- a doomsday clock all their own. And few folks seem to give a damn.

The end is expected to take place for the Kootenai River white sturgeon during the year 2030. Across the Continental Divide in the Missouri River, Montana's last wild pallid sturgeon will quite probably be gone by 2017.

The biology is tragically simple, explains Brian Marotz, a state fisheries biologist deeply involved in the issue. Dams on the Kootenai and Missouri rivers have corked off the natural spring freshet that triggers spawning. Or put it another way; the dams slammed a concrete curtain on the spawning. That's how you spell extinction.

Extinction takes a while because sturgeons live so long. A white sturgeon may live 100 years. A female won't produce eggs until she's 30. So predicting the inevitable outcome is a relatively simple matter of counting the fish, figuring their ages and doing the subtraction.

Saving sturgeon, on the other hand, seems a much more stubborn problem, our culture being reluctant to give up or alter dams that provide hydropower, flood control and navigation.

But here's why we should care about sturgeon: If you are the literalist Christian type, I'm fine with that. Sturgeons are part of God's creation, and God surely doesn't take kindly to us squandering the natural world that's been so generously provided for us.

If, on the other hand, you lean toward the fossil record, here's another version. Complex, multi-cellular life on earth is perhaps 550 million years old. Five times in the past 550 million years, comets, meteors or some other catastrophe slammed into this planet, triggering mass extinction. The biggest of these calamities was the Permian Extinction, about 250 million years ago.

That blow wiped out perhaps 95 percent of all life forms in the oceans. It was curtains for most species, but it proved a great opportunity for a blossoming form of life now called the sturgeon. Sturgeons are essentially vacuum cleaners with fins. They swim around, sucking up dead and living protein.

Jeer if you must, but this strategy has kept sturgeon on Earth for 250 million years. Modern sturgeon species, the white and pallid for example, emerged in the time of the dinosaurs, about 70 million years ago. Fossil beds in Montana are strewn with the remains of both sturgeon and dinosaurs. Sturgeon easily survived the meteor strike that KO'd the dinosaurs, and likewise coasted through the ice ages of the last 3 million years that ushered in our current theater of mammals, from moose to muskrats to you and me.

Sturgeons look like dinosaurs because they basically are dinosaurs. Columbia River sturgeons grow to 15 feet, which is longer than any car I've ever owned. They can weigh 1,500 pounds, making them as massive as a bull bison.

I have met old-timers along the Snake, Salmon and Kootenai rivers who used to catch white sturgeon by setting massive trot lines in a deep river hole and anchoring them to trees. When the line tightened, the fishermen hooked a team of horses to the rope and yanked the fish ashore.

Sometimes, if the fish was particularly huge and the fisherman had just one horse, the fish would win the tug-of-war and drown the horse. Fisherman figured it was an improvement when they got tractors. (Montana's sturgeons are not that large, but still reportedly put up a herculean fight.)

Yes, the white, light flesh of sturgeons makes them delicious. Caviar is the product sturgeons are most famous for, but you have to kill precious adult females for the roe. Russian species of sturgeon are going extinct as poachers kill fish for black-market caviar.

I don't know what else a sturgeon is good for. To the best of my knowledge, sturgeons hold no cure for cancer or stand to better the condition of mankind in any other way. I don't think they have to. I want to keep sturgeon around simply out of respect. Out of awe. Out of our responsibility toward our children. Out of sheer shame and horror over our own capacity to destroy.

Staring into the abyss of time is like staring into the abyss of space. One sturgeon reflects a continuum of life dating back, if you count one century at a time, for two-and-a-half million centuries. Listen up. You can hear the clock ticking.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. He is a writer in Kalispell, Mont.

Publication date: 08/14/03