DNR pulls plug on Sturgeon Guard
Program started in 1980s
By Greg Seubert
A longtime program that helped keep vulnerable spawning lake sturgeon from being illegally harvested in the Wolf River has been eliminated.
The state Department of Natural Resources has decided to end the Sturgeon Guard program, which the agency coordinated since the effort began in the 1980s. Under the program, volunteers headed to sturgeon spawning sites along the river each spring to help protect the fish from illegal harvest.
Thousands of male and female sturgeon – some of them 6 feet long and larger – enter the river each spring from Lake Winnebago and head upstream to spawn along the shoreline of the river from just west of New London to below the dam in Shawano.
Ben Treml, a regional warden based at the DNR’s Green Bay Service Center, said the program will not be held this year and added the decision to end the program came earlier this year.
“It was really based on a business decision on my part and others,” he said. “We were finding out that the longer that we continued to do this, it was harder to fill shifts. There were nights when we didn’t have any volunteers, yet we had wardens that were still there manning the camp and also out looking for sturgeon and checking on volunteers, so it kind of tied them up a little.
“We revamped it about four years ago and said, ‘This has really become more of a public relations and education component,’” he said. “We haven’t had a lot of violations in the last 20 years. I think communities have embraced the fish. We didn’t have them doing the illegal acts that they did years ago.”
The decision to end the program isn’t sitting well with the former president of Sturgeon For Tomorrow Inc.
Dan Groeschel of Fond du Lac has been involved with Sturgeon For Tomorrow for more than 40 years and was instrumental in getting the Sturgeon Guard program off the ground in the 1980s.
“Law enforcement made the decision and Sturgeon For Tomorrow is not in favor of it being stopped,” he said. “(The idea behind the Sturgeon Guard) was to protect the great resource that we have here or help protect it. It needed protection. There were a lot of the big fish – the spawners – being taken out for many years. I told the DNR I thought it was a poor decision. Protection is needed because when people find out about it, I’m sure there will be more going on as far as taking the resource out.”
Treml and Groeschel said poaching problems led to the Sturgeon Guard’s creation.
“There were too many sturgeon being lost while they were going up spawning,” Groeschel said. “It was too easy to poach them and take them out. There was a lot of that. There are stories out there that they were hauling sturgeon to Chicago by the milk truck load for the eggs and the meat.”
“Before penalties for taking sturgeon were criminal, it seemed like a cat-and-mouse game and it was a problem,” Treml said. “We had wardens deployed all over the state. It transpired into department employees doing the same so the wardens could be out on patrol. Then, we came into the realm of having a Sturgeon Guard coordinator using volunteers. Up until about four years ago, that’s the model that we had.”
The Sturgeon Guard has been successful in the past, according to Groeschel.
“It seemed to really cut down the poaching and taking of the fish,” he said. “We’re seeing that in the harvest of the big sturgeon. They have a chance to get older and get larger. It’s been very beneficial for the resource.”
The Sturgeon Guard and the ritual of watching spawning sturgeon evolved over the years. The DNR made major improvements to several sites along the river – including the Wolf River Sturgeon Trail near New London, Bamboo Bend in Shiocton and the area beneath the dam in Shawano – to provide the public with viewing opportunities.
“It kind of transpired into this family event where there are hundreds of people at various locations when the sturgeon are spawning,” Treml said. “We would get volunteers from 10 in the morning until 7 at night for about four years until covid hit. We would have them strategically placed at (State Highway) 156, New London, the Shawano dam, Shiocton and a couple of other high-visible places. We’d have a warden that would check on all the volunteers throughout the day to make sure that they were good to go. Covid hit and we didn’t have it for two years and then the Sturgeon Guard coordinator, Barbara Helmick, retired.”
COVID-19 concerns kept Sturgeon Guards off of the river in 2020 and 2021.
“When covid decreased this year, we evaluated it and we do not have the staffing to pull a field warden out of the field to conduct the Sturgeon Guard duties,” Treml said. “We’re still going to have wardens doing their enforcement duties up and down the river. Our work is on the river with walleye enforcement. It takes all hands on deck with all the wardens to do that. The amount of pressure the Wolf River gets from walleye anglers is unbelievable. The sturgeon and walleye coexist at certain times. We’re still on the river, we’re still doing our enforcement, we just aren’t doing the Sturgeon Guard program.”
“Many of us feel that was a very bad decision on the DNR’s part,” Groeschel said. “You can go down and pull the fish out while they’re spawning with a gaff hook, snag hook or anything. They’re very docile, they’re not worried about anything but reproducing and spawning. If you don’t protect it, you may lose it.”
“It’s really a nice community outreach program,” Treml said. “It’s just unfortunate that we can’t staff it right now. It would be great if we could have a partnership with a community or some type of organization that would want to run the Sturgeon Guard program. We’d certainly be open in showing them our model and how it was successful, but we really have to use our efforts on enforcement on that river.”
Who’s in charge?
Treml said the DNR is open to another organization – such as Sturgeon For Tomorrow – overseeing the program.
“Any group that would say, ‘Hey, we’d like to take this over,’ we would work with them,” he said. “It’s really about coordinating and getting volunteers. There’s work there, no doubt about it.”
Groeschel said it’s possible for Sturgeon For Tomorrow to take the program over, but added the organization would need the DNR’s help.
“You need law enforcement to enforce anything that’s going on,” he said. “They’re carrying the firearms and everything else. We’ve done our part all along and didn’t expect the DNR to cut back on that at all. If they don’t want to put that extra effort into protecting the fish, that’s what their job is, to protect the resources.
“I’d like to see it back in enforcement and carried on,” he added. “It does take an effort on law enforcement’s part to take care of the program. They said they were more interested in protecting the walleyes than the sturgeon spawning. It’s good to protect the walleyes, but sturgeon are a special species. If nobody is protecting the river, who knows what’s going to take place?”
Sturgeon For Tomorrow helped fund the program from the beginning, Groeschel said.
“We helped start it, we’ve been funding it all these years,” he said. “We would purchase the caps for identification for the people that were in the Guard program. We would pay for the food that was for anybody that would participate in the program. We paid for the cooks to prepare the food.”
“Anytime you have the community involved in a project like this, it’s not an easy decision,” Treml said. “Like all programs, we’re always evaluating things. At this time, we just can’t staff it. This is something we can always readjust and re-evaluate if we have problems. Absolutely.”
Treml isn’t worried about illegal harvest of sturgeon without the Sturgeon Guard program, but that’s not the case with Groeschel.
“The community has really embraced these fish,” Treml said. “We don’t have people that have really poached sturgeon. In the past two years, we’re still doing our enforcement jobs on the river and haven’t had any complaints. I can’t think of any off the top of my head.”
Groeschel said the bottom line is the Sturgeon Guard program is necessary to prevent illegal harvest.
“I think the sturgeon population is that important that the Sturgeon Guard program should be in place,” he said. “It is a good program.”
The temptation for poaching could increase if the program is eliminated, Groeschel said.
“I don’t doubt that it takes place anyway,” he said. “Does it still go on? I don’t know, I’m not up on the river, I don’t live there. Can you say everybody is guilty of doing it? No, I don’t think so. Are there some that might? That’s a possibility.”