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A major milestone on the long recovery journey for Minnesota's lake sturgeon has been recorded this month somewhere on the upper reaches of a Red River tributary. 

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced it had verified the first lake sturgeon spawning event in the Red River Basin in over 100 years. 

The conservation work that led to the milestone began over two decades ago with efforts to reintroduce the species, which had been driven to local extinction. 

"That fish has endured for tens of millions of years and then in the span of 40 years mankind was able to wipe it out of the Red River Basin," said Nicholas Kludt, a Red River fisheries specialist with the DNR. 

Dam construction, Kludt explained, fragmented the species' habitat, interrupted natural movement patterns and led to overfishing. 

Sometime between 1880 and 1930, lake sturgeon went extinct from the region. 

Recovery efforts 

The reintroduction story begins in 1997, when juvenile lake sturgeon were transported from the Rainy River to the Red River, Kludt said. In 2002, the DNR and other partners formed a lake sturgeon stocking program with hatchery-reared fish. 

Today, most of the fish in the system are around 20 years old or younger. 

Because lake sturgeon females reach maturity at 20-25 years old, the team working on the recovery has been watching closely for natural reproduction in recent years. 

Kludt said the first sexually-mature female lake sturgeon was observed in the Red River Basin in 2019 and, in 2021, they found a second. 

The long biological timeline of lake sturgeon makes conservation efforts difficult — it also makes this year's spawning event extremely exciting. 

A 'living dinosaur' 

Lake sturgeon are Minnesota's largest fish and often considered living fossils. 

"They are one of the iconic native species of Minnesota," Kludt said. "They are literally a living dinosaur." 

In Minnesota, they are listed as a species of special concern and are a tremendously popular fish with anglers.

Kludt said developing sport fishery for lake sturgeon in the Red River Basin is an exciting prospect for the region —  the popularity of the existing catch-and-release season is an encouraging sign. 

Future milestones 

The recovery efforts for lake sturgeon in the Red River Basin have involved many partners, including the Red Lake DNR, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Rainy River First Nations and White Earth Nation. 

"It's a very, very large group effort," Kludt said. 

With natural reproduction now occurring, the DNR is continuing its work to restore the species' migration pathways in the system. 

The Red River Basin spans northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota on its path to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.

Kludt said 40 of the 77 projects needed to remove or modify dams and other barriers in the system have been completed since 1991.

Ten additional projects are underway with the support of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment

The next leap for the lake sturgeon recovery effort will be documenting the natural born offspring through their own life cycle — something called "fish recruitment". 

Reaching that milestone will require at least another 20 years of patience. 

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