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Wisconsin’s US lawmakers want to exempt state sturgeon from possible endangered designation

Conservationists say a designation wouldn't end sturgeon spearing traditions

Logan Sikora registers a sturgeon
In this photo, Logan Sikora registers a sturgeon in Winneconne during the 2015 spearing season (Carrie Antlfinger/AP Photo)

Some members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation are working to prevent the state’s lake sturgeon population from being listed as a threatened or endangered species. But conservation advocates say the designation may be warranted as the population has declined dramatically over the last century.

At a press conference Monday, U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher announced a bill he’s introducing that would exempt Wisconsin from any listing of lake sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act. He was joined by U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, state Rep. Ty Bodden, R-Hilbert, state Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, and local sturgeon enthusiasts.

The announcement comes after a bipartisan group of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month, urging the agency to exempt the state from any potential listing. The letter was signed by Gallagher, Grothman, the rest of the state’s House Republicans, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

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Gallagher on Monday called northeast Wisconsin’s Winnebago System “the sturgeon capital of the world” and said sturgeon spearing is vital to the region’s way of life.

“It’s not just cultural or economic connection that have made our community the sturgeon capital of the world,” Gallagher said. “We also have the world’s most meticulous management plan. It’s one that combines public and private efforts from biologists at the DNR to fishermen and local fishing clubs up and down Lake Winnebago.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Green Bay, speaks at a press conference Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 about lake sturgeon. Listening behind him are state Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, and U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah. (Joe Schulz/WPR)

The state Department of Natural Resources’ 2023 Lake Sturgeon Spawning And Population Assessment for the Winnebago System estimates the watershed had 23,625 adult male lake sturgeon and 18,061 adult female fish. The report said the Winnebago System has a stable number of lake sturgeon, describing it as a “good, sustainable population.”

Conservationists: Sturgeon in trouble outside Winnebago System

While the Winnebago System may have a stable population of lake sturgeon, the fish also live in other bodies of water in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin.

According to the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, lake sturgeon numbers have declined by more than 99 percent over the last century because of overfishing, dams and pollution. As of 2021, the nonprofit said there were less than a dozen large and stable lake sturgeon populations in the country.

In 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a “threatened” listing under the Endangered Species Act for all lake sturgeon in the country, or alternatively for separate listings of distinct populations as threatened or endangered. 

Will Harlan, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the agency is looking at genetically distinct sturgeon populations, and it may not provide a designation for the entire species. That means the agency could designate specific areas as threatened or endangered. 

Harlan also said he doesn’t expect a federal designation would have a dramatic effect on sturgeon spearing, but it may require “short-term sacrifices” for “long-term benefits” to both the lake sturgeon and the anglers. 

“Fishing of sturgeon can and should continue,” Harlan said. “It will depend largely on how Fish and Wildlife Service designates the populations, but it is not an end to fishing. Hopefully, it is the beginning of more robust fishing because the populations will ultimately grow.”

Lake Winnebago anglers fear economic impact of designation

Even so, northeast Wisconsin sturgeon enthusiasts expressed worry Monday about the economic impact an endangered species designation would have on local communities surrounding Lake Winnebago.

Representatives from Sturgeon for Tomorrow and Sturgeon Guard speak with each other ahead of a press conference U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher held Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. (Joe Schulz/WPR)

Jennifer Schaefer, a member of the Stockbridge Harbor Fishing Club’s Board of Directors, said the village of Stockbridge comes to life each sturgeon spearing season. The small town sees its gas stations, bait shops and hotels filled with people, bringing with them foot traffic to local restaurants and small businesses.

“It’s safe to say sturgeon spearing has a huge economic impact to the businesses and communities surrounding Lake Winnebago,” Schaefer said. “Many families in the Stockbridge area have deep sturgeon spearing traditions that have been passed down through the generations.”

But Harlan says a federal designation could help carry on those long-standing traditions for future generations by ensuring harvests are done sustainably to give fish a chance of recovering and growing.

“We should let science drive the decisions and not politics,” he said.

“Exempting whole states from the federal endangered species act undermines the intent and purpose of the act,” Harlan added. “We should see where the populations are strongest and where they’re struggling and let the Fish and Wildlife Service make an informed decision based on the best available science.”

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