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BEAR LAKE WATER LEVEL A CONCERN

Water, yes, is vital . . . especially to fish. And, with water levels in Utah's lakes and reservoirs dropping hourly, biologists are becoming a little concerned.

Bear Lake, for example, one of the state's most important fishing waters, already at a record low, will no doubt drop lower this year.And, if it does, what will happen to the fish?

It's a question Bryce Nielson, fisheries biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources at the lake, would not like to have to answer.

The low lake level has already severely cut natural spawning of the Bear Lake cutthroat and Bear Lake sculpin, and will certainly hurt the Bear Lake cisco and whitefish this winter.

Ideally, Nielson said, the lake level should go no lower than 5,918 and 5,921 feet above sea level. It is currently at 5,906 . . . "Or, 13 feet below where we want it to be. It's a very drastic decline.

"The last time, since man has controlled the level, that it was this low was in 1936. We know the lake came back then, but will it this time?"

Of major concern is the annual spawn of the Bear Lake cutthroat.

At St. Charles Creek, a primary spawning area for the cutthroat, there is now nearly three quarters of a mile of dry lake bed between the old shoreline and the edge of the water.

Nielson said that because of the low water there has not been a natural spawn of cutthroat in St. Charles Creek for three years, "and it's likely there won't be one for another two or more years. We're looking at a potential loss of naturally spawning Bear Lake cutthroat for five years."

During egg-taking operations, biologists lift about 20 percent of the fish over the traps and into the stream in order to perpetuate natural spawning in the stream. He said this is done to help maintain the genetic diversity of the wild fish. For three years, now, there has been no natural spawning in the stream.

Down on the other end of the lake, at Swan Creek, there is about a third of a mile of dry lake bed between the water's edge and the shoreline. Some fish have been able to make it up a channel dug by a track-hoe this summer.

What they've encountered, however, is poor spawning conditions. Irrigation needs upsteam have greatly reduced flow.

This year, said Nielson, he was only able to collect about 170,000 eggs from fish in the Swan Creek traps.

"Normally, we'd take between 600,000 and 700,000 eggs. We did have some brood stock we were able take eggs from to make up the difference, but we prefer to get all the eggs from fish in the lake," he said.

"Low water is also going to affect the cisco and whitefish. I'd say that about 80 percent of the rock spawning beds are now out of the water."

Hardest hit may be the sculpin.

It was once throught that the sculpin, a prehistoric-looking fish, was a predator and destroyed trout eggs and fry. More recent studies show that the sculpin is, in fact, a food source for trout and whitefish.

The sculpin needs rocks to spawn.

"The things is we don't know much about this fish. We don't know what the recuperative capacities of the fish are. But, we do know this year's class will be very low because of the lack of spawning areas.

"It will have a major impact on this fish, which is, we believe now, one of the most important endemic fish in the lake."

At this point there is no cause for alarm. Brood stock supplemented the egg taking so the lake will get its usual dose of new fish, although not its usual natural introduction. And, said Nielson, the lake is large enough and deep enough that aside from a strain on some fish during the spawn, it's likely that most won't be bothered by the difference in water level.

Other fish, however, have been impacted seriously. The crayfish, which inhabit the shorelines, have been wiped out; the yellow perch, also a shoreline fish, are probably gone; and the Utah chubs have likely been hurt.

The lake has gone through this cycle before and recovered, and Nielson expects no less this time unless the water goes too much lower. No one knows what will happen then.

"All of what we are learning, however, is not negative. This has given us an insight into life around the lake we haven't had before. I'm learning about things in the lake that were 10 to 12 feet under water before. It's interesting to see this area around the lake.

"We're maximizing the amount of biological and physical information, but we'd like to see the lake come back up."