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Anglers asked to watch for Pallid Sturgeons

Anglers are encountering the endangered Pallid Sturgeon more often, confusing them with other types of sturgeons.
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Posted at 4:09 PM, Jun 13, 2024

Due in part to successful conservation efforts, anglers are encountering the endangered pallid sturgeon more often or confusing them with other types of sturgeons.

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks would like to remind people: “If you don’t know, let it go.”

With a lifespan of up to 70 years, and growing up to four to six feet long, the Pallid Sturgeon is one of three endangered species in Montana.

Dave Hagengruber, the Communication and Education Manager at Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks in Great Falls explains, “They're very ancient. They're very prehistoric. Fossil records go back 100 to 200 million years on sturgeon. So really, literally they're like a living dinosaur. We have very few of them left. At one point they were down to about 200 adult fish left that we know of in the state of Montana. So because they haven't been able to successfully reproduce here for a long time, 40 or 50 years. So we didn't have any small or young pallid sturgeon. Now, our hatcheries have been able to grow Pallids and they've been releasing them into the wild to try and keep the population going.”

Pallid sturgeons are found in large river systems like the Missouri, Yellowstone, and Milk rivers, along with the generally smaller Shovelnose sturgeons. However, size is not always an indicator. Because hatcheries have been releasing younger pallids into the wild, it’s quite possible to find a smaller, young Pallid and confuse it for a Shovelnose.

The best way to tell the difference is by looking at the barbells, the whisker-like portion by the fish’s mouth.

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Pallid Sturgeon

The pallid sturgeon has barbells which are different lengths. The inside barbells are usually a little bit shorter, the barbells at the outside of the fish's head are a little bit longer. Shovelnose sturgeon, the barbells are in a straight line and are all about the same length.

From the Montana Field Guide:

The pallid sturgeon is one of the rarest fishes in North America and was federally listed as endangered in 1990. The Pallid Sturgeon has been declining during at least the past 50 years with only about 200 adults remaining in the upper Missouri River and limited natural reproduction.

The Pallid Sturgeon is the larger of the two species of sturgeon found east of the Continental Divide. Both sturgeon species, Pallid and Shovelnose, co-occur in the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. Pallid sturgeons have a unique dinosaur-like appearance and have been swimming around since the dinosuars.

They have a flattened snout, long slender tail and are armored with lengthwise rows of bony plates instead of scales. Their mouth is toothless and positioned under the snout for sucking small fishes and invertebrates from the river bottom. Pallid sturgeon can weigh up to 80 pounds and grow to about 6 feet long.

If you do come across a sturgeon and recognize it as a pallid, or even if you’re unsure, keep it wet, unhook it, and toss it back into the water.

For more information on Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks’ Pallid Sturgeon protection, click here.