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Science in the Wind River Watershed: Sauger Research

Craig Amadio and the subject of his research

This June, two University of Wyoming zoology students started research projects investigating the life cycle and habits of sauger in the Wind River drainage. The sauger (Sander Canadensis - a member of the perch family) is an important but poorly understood native fish in the Wind River watershed.

Both research projects build on a 2003 sauger study by Craig Amadio, who is now a Fisheries Biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Green River. Amadio’s research determined that moderate numbers of genetically-pure, adult sauger inhabit the Wind River system, particularly the Little Wind and Popo Agie Rivers (see the Winter 2004 issue of Wind River Waters for more details about Amadio’s study).

Scott Roth, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologist, explains the importance of the new sauger research, “Craig’s research raised some interesting questions, especially about the habits of juvenile sauger. The two new projects should give us a better understanding of the movement and life cycle of sauger in the Wind River system, which will help us manage and protect this important native fish population.”

Like Amadio’s original study, two new sauger studies are being conducted under the guidance of Professor Wayne Hubert, Assistant Leader of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Both studies are being made possible by a joint effort of Wyoming Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shoshone and Arapaho Tribes, and the University of Wyoming.

Prime sauger habitat on the Little Wind River

One of the new sauger projects, conducted by Kris Kuhn, will focus on determining winter habitat and breeding areas of adult sauger. Kuhn will begin by surveying and mapping potentially critical habitat throughout the drainage. Next, 50 adult male sauger will be captured and surgically implanted with radio transmitters. Tagged fish will be tracked from the ground and by airplane from fall through spring. Locations of tagged fish will be used to determine where fish reside during winter and where they go to spawn in the spring, information crucial in maintaining a self-sustaining, healthy sauger population into the future. So if you catch a sauger with an antennae sticking out of its belly, please release it gently back into the river!

The other new sauger study, conducted by Patrick Lionberger, involves studying habitat needs of young sauger. One of Lionberger’s goals is to determine the location of sauger nurseries in the Wind River system. Lionberger has already begun testing techniques for sampling juvenile sauger, and he will soon be testing new techniques to determine where juvenile sauger are living. This technique involves analyzing the composition of sauger otoliths, or inner-ear bones, to determine where sauger live during different periods of their lives.

Sauger are one of the most widely distributed game fish species in North America, but recent surveys show their populations and range are declining dramatically. In Wyoming, sauger were once plentiful in the Wind-Bighorn, Tongue, Powder, and North Platte rivers, but they are now found in only a few reaches of the Wind-Bighorn river system. Factors contributing to sauger decline include habitat loss, interbreeding with walleye, and migration barriers. Sauger need to move great distances to feed, breed and find winter cover, but their movement is often limited by dams (large and small) and dewatering.