Sturgeon bill introduced
By Greg Seubert
The potential to add lake sturgeon to the federal Endangered Species List has touched a nerve in northeastern Wisconsin.
Judging from the more than 500 people that filled the Stockbridge High School gym Jan. 22 and the introduction of a bill that would keep the state’s popular sturgeon spearing season in place, the prehistoric-looking fish that has thrived for years in the Lake Winnebago System has quickly become Wisconsin’s latest hot-button environmental issue.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has a court-imposed deadline of June 30 to make a determination on the status of lake sturgeon. The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the agency in 2018 for a threatened listing under the federal Endangered Species Act for all lake sturgeon in the country or separate threatened or endangered listings of distinct populations.
The hour-long meeting came hours after U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher introduced a bill that would exempt Wisconsin from any listing of lake sturgeon under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“We have something very special here in northeast Wisconsin, something incredibly special that we have to protect,” he said. “We are the sturgeon capital of the world and that’s a title that we’ve earned, that’s a title that you’ve earned. Just look at the 500 people here tonight and the thousands of people that will flock to the lake when the timing is right.”
Gallagher and Rep. Glenn Grothman announced the bill’s introduction earlier in the day in Chilton.
“It’s called the Sturgeon Protected and Exempt from Absurd Regulations (SPEAR) Act,” Gallagher said. “A lot of time was spent in the office trying to come up with the perfect acronym. The SPEAR Act would prohibit the lake sturgeon from being listed under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) in Wisconsin. As I’m sure everybody here knows, if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it. We don’t want to let the federal government come in and mess with Wisconsin’s successful management of sturgeon.”
“It’s hard to believe this is necessary,” Grothman said. “Over the last 40 years, it’s obvious that the number of sturgeon has gone up. The size of sturgeon has increased greatly over the last 40 years.”
“We have a great story to tell,” Gallagher said. “This is a story of successful conservation. This is a story of a successful partnership between you, the (state Department of Natural Resources) and federal stakeholders until recently. There is no justification for the complaint being made. The potential negative effects of the decision to list lake sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act are many. Sturgeon spearing on the Winnebago System is one of our longest-standing, most cherished unique traditions. It’s also a crucial component of Wisconsin’s highly successful and meticulous management plan which has set the example for the country and the world. The Winnebago System is home to a thriving lake sturgeon population, one of the largest in North America and one of the most successful sturgeon fisheries in the world.
“A listing under the ESA would potentially put decades of hard work and the future of spearing in jeopardy,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent tonight.”
Representatives from the DNR, USFWS and Center for Biological Diversity did not speak at the meeting.
Those that did address the crowd included former DNR sturgeon biologist Ron Bruch.
“I pretty much stayed out of this,” he said. “I was told by the DNR two years ago that they were going to engage me in this process, but then I never got the call, so I don’t know what happened there. In Wisconsin, we have our own (endangered species) act as well and sturgeon are not listed as threatened or endangered in Wisconsin. They’re called a species of concern. The federal act, which was passed in 1973, was designed to protect critically imperiled species from extinction. That was the basis for the federal law.”
Bruch said he supports Gallagher’s bill.
“I fully support passage of the SPEAR Act currently being considered by Congress,” he said. “Wisconsin does not list lake sturgeon (as) endangered nor threatened in state waters; has in place a sturgeon program considered a world model for effective management and recovery; and as such should be exempt from any federal ESA listing of the species.”
Sturgeon for Tomorrow
The bill also has the support of Sturgeon for Tomorrow.
“Sturgeon for Tomorrow is totally opposed to federal ESA listing of lake sturgeon in Wisconsin, and totally in support of the SPEAR Act,” according to a joint statement from Jim Patt, Sally Gilson, Pat Braasch, Andy Horn and Dean Schroeder, the organization’s five chapter presidents around the Lake Winnebago System. “Working in a partnership with the DNR, we have built an excellent and proven program to effectively manage our lake sturgeon here in Wisconsin, and we do not need additional federal intervention.”
The potential listing would not only threaten Wisconsin’s existing sturgeon management plan, but would ignore the cultural importance and economic impact of lake sturgeon and sturgeon spearing to northeastern Wisconsin, according to Gallagher.
“Sturgeon spearing in Wisconsin is a long-cherished tradition and crucial to the livelihoods of our communities near Lake Winnebago,” he said. “Wisconsin is the global leader in lake sturgeon management and these efforts should not be threatened by a federal government agency’s nationwide, one-size-fits-all listing. This common-sense bill will ensure sturgeon spearing and Wisconsin’s conservation success story will continue for generations to come.”
The crowd included several avid sturgeon spearers, including Drew Wudtke and his brother, Patrick, who made the hour-long trip from Bonduel.
“We go every year and grew up doing it,” Drew said. “It’s kind of a family tradition. It takes commitment. This will be my 14th or 15th year of going and I got one the whole time two years ago. It’s better than shooting a big buck. Getting that sturgeon is really something.”
Wudtke said he heard about the meeting online.
“(Patrick) called me after work today and said, ‘Hey, let’s go,’” he said shortly before the meeting started. “I think it’s really unfortunate that someone would look to do that, especially here. They’re managed quite well in Wisconsin. Just look how many you see when you go look at them (spawning in the Wolf River) in the spring. I’m not sure what they’re going to tell us, but I hope that it gets taken care of and goes away.”
Ending the sturgeon spearing season
Wudtke was asked what he thought would happen if a listing resulted in the end of Wisconsin’s sturgeon spearing season.
“To be honest with you, I think a bunch of us would probably be getting in trouble,” he said. “It would hurt the local economy and definitely have an impact on people going fishing. It’s not just Stockbridge, it’s the other side of the lake, the north end, the south end.”
“People are obviously concerned about what’s going on,” Patrick said. “We’re sticking up for family traditions in this area. Sometimes, when people talk about listing (sturgeon), they probably don’t know what’s going on around here. As this becomes more of a big deal, you’ll see a lot more people get a lot more vocal. People are here searching for information more than anything right now.
“My big concern is it would be devastating to lose that tradition,” he said. “There are some friends and family members that we only see for 16 days of the year and that’s the sturgeon season. To lose that would be terrible. What matters to us is more than the spearing of sturgeon. There’s a lot more than goes into it. If you see them spawning on the banks of the river, that’s an awesome sight to see. Our grandfather used to be part of the Sturgeon Guard program right from when it started. I can remember being a little boy going to see the sturgeon in the spring. We felt it was important to be here because if you don’t come out and say something, then they instantly assume it doesn’t matter.”
Gallagher said his next move is to do what he can to get his bill signed into law.
“Get the SPEAR bill passed preventing them from listing it, that’s the next step,” he said. “It shows how serious the local population is taking this and how important it is for the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service to listen to people that are actual experts in this, whether it’s fisherman or the DNR. We have a great success story.”