Illinois Native Gar in the Legislature

Update, April 19

The Ag & Conservation Committee has adopted the resolution with a 13-0 vote. Thank you to everyone who registered support for this legislation. All our names were read into the record as proponents, there was a quick inside joke from one representative to another about hunting gar from a pirogue, and then it was done. The whole thing took less than 5 minutes.

Now the resolution will be “reported to the floor” of the House. This does not mean that the resolution will automatically be brought to a vote, however. We now have to concentrate our efforts on convincing those in charge of what gets a vote that this resolution is worthy of consideration by the full House. I will post more information as I have it.

This is a great day for native fishes in general, and our four gars in particular. HJR0141, the first resolution of its kind in this state, has passed out of committee on a unanimous, bipartisan vote. We will continue to work to get the Senate to consider the resolution as well, and to get the House to pass it. Stay tuned…

“Testify” in Support of Illinois Gar

A resolution in the Illinois legislature that urges the Illinois DNR to protect our four native gar species as and where necessary, and to continue and expedite the ongoing reintroduction of alligator gar to the state, will have its first hearing tomorrow morning (Tues., April 19, 2016) in the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee. If it passes there, it will go to the full House for a vote. If it dies there…

To virtually “testify” in support of the resolution, please visit:

Type in your info, choose “proponent,” and select “record of appearance only”.

That’s it. No testimony required. (But if you know who your Representative is, please feel free to email them about your support for this resolution.)

This has to be done before the hearing, so please take a few moments and do it tonight.

Synopsis of the Resolution

Urges the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to develop protections as needed for all Illinois native gar species to ensure the long term viability of the shortnose gar, the longnose gar, the spotted gar, and the alligator gar, with particular protections developed for alligator gar. Urges the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to apply these protections as needed and include site specific size and creel limits based on the size of the reproductively mature gar to protect brood stock from premature harvest. Urges the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to work with partners to identify ways to expand and expedite the reintroduction of alligator gar to waterways to expedite the creation of a sustainable and regulated trophy fishing resource in the State.

The resolution is supported by Illinois DNR, The Sierra Club and other environmental groups, numerous scientists and anglers, and the Bowfishing Alliance.

Full Text

SENATE JOINT RESOLUTION (The text of the Senate and House versions of the resolution are identical.)

WHEREAS, Since prehistoric times, Illinois waterways have been home to four species of gar that swam alongside dinosaurs, mastodons, and pioneers; and

WHEREAS, Alligator gar reaching more than six feet in length and 300 pounds in weight once patrolled Illinois waterways; and

WHEREAS, For a century, gar have been misnamed as nuisances, threats to sportfish, “trash fish”, or worse; and

WHEREAS, The largest of these species, the alligator gar, was once extirpated from our State, but has been reintroduced on a limited basis through the hard work, expertise, and commitment of our Department of Natural Resources; and

WHEREAS, Our great institutions of higher education, consisting of the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and Springfield campuses, Western Illinois University, and Eastern Illinois University, are engaged in research showing the intrinsic value of gar species to Illinois waterways, sport fisheries, and recreational opportunities; and

WHEREAS, Anglers, whether they use hook-and-line or and arrows to pursue their quarry, are discovering the thrill of gar fishing; and

WHEREAS, Food lovers across the State are beginning to discover the culinary delight that is the flesh of gar; and

WHEREAS, The increasing popularity of gar presents new opportunities for gar management to ensure the long-term viability of the fishery; and

WHEREAS, Fully grown alligator gar is our only native species capable of eating adult Asian carp; and

WHEREAS, Many Illinoisans and tourists look forward to the day when giant alligator gar will again swim our waterways, presenting a unique trophy fishing opportunity; and

WHEREAS, Gar have for too long been falsely accused of hurting game species, when studies clearly show healthy gar populations lead to healthier game species populations; and

WHEREAS, The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has taken a two-year hiatus from their efforts to restore the alligator gar population; therefore, be it

RESOLVED, BY THE SENATE OF THE NINETY-NINTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES CONCURRING HEREIN, that we urge the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to develop protections as needed for all Illinois native gar species to ensure the long term viability of the shortnose gar (Lepisosteus platostomus), the longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus), the spotted gar (Lepisosteus occulatus), and the alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula), with particular protections developed for alligator gar; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we urge the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to apply these protections as needed and include site specific size and creel limits based on the size of the reproductively mature gar to protect brood stock from premature harvest; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we urge the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to work with partners to identify ways to expand and expedite the reintroduction of alligator gar to waterways to expedite the creation of a sustainable and regulated trophy fishing resource in the State; and be it further

RESOLVED, That a suitable copy of this resolution be delivered to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Gar Peril! Iowa, 1912

Browsing old newspapers for interesting fish stories, I uncovered a very brief item of massive importance and interest. That this has remained hidden so long may be evidence of a cover-up (though there is, as yet, no way to know how high this goes).


There are, in this single sentence, more stories than young Edward himself might have wanted us to find.

If you have ever seen Jeremy Wade get so worked up over the potential implications of a few sentences of rumored fish-driven carnage that he can spin an entire episode of River Monsters from it before (usually) deciding either that the damage was done by something other than a fish or that it never happened at all, then you know how quickly a story can grow.

This troubling news item is the same.

Was he really swimming? Did he fall in, or was he pushed? Was it really a gar? Could it have been a submerged stick?

What was Edward McKittrick hiding? Who has worked so hard to keep it hidden until now?

Much is missing from this story, but most unfortunate is the absence of an illustration. I tried to find a photo of Mr. McKittrick, hoping for a grizzled river rat with an eye patch, but found nothing. If it’s the same man, I did come up with a birthdate in November 1892, making him 19 when the incident occurred. A prime age for doing dumb things and getting hurt, and a prime age for telling stories to cover your tracks.*

As a public service, I present an artist’s rendering of Edward McKittrick at 19, shortly after his encounter with a vicious Mississippi River gar, and later, when he was a respected pillar of the Fort Madison community. You’re welcome.

A man with a fish stuck in his eye.

Artist’s rendering of young Mr. McKittrick (age 19) and a respected leader of the community.

I am surprised I have to say this, but messages and comments about the severity and/or impossibility of the injury indicate it’s necessary: I made this illustration. Yesterday. 104 years after the news item was printed. There are no illustrations of the real guy or the real gar. I thought it would be obvious. I mean, who wears a live gar in his eyebrow for 30-40 years?

(To be perfectly clear, the news item is 100% real. Don’t know how true it is, but it is real.)

* I did a little research and found out more about Mr. McKittrick. He registered for the draft for both World War I (when he was 24 and already in the ROTC) and World War II (when he was 49). His WWI draft registration card specifically says he has all his limbs, eyes, etc., but does not mention the gar. He may have been in the infantry during WWI, but appears not to have been deployed outside the US. He was stationed at Ft. Snelling (MN) after he enlisted in 1917, and rose from the rank of Private to 2nd Lieutenant at the time of his discharge in 1919. He died in California in 1966.

New Work on Species of Western Mountain Suckers (Pantosteus)

A new paper does a lot for our understanding of the several Mountain Sucker species in the genus Pantosteus. It elevates Pantosteus back to genus and elevates some old species. It divides Bluehead Suckers into two species: P. discobolus (in the Colorado Basin) and  P. virescens (in the Bonneville and Snake basins). It divides mountain suckers into P. platyrhynchus (in the Bonneville and Snake basins), P. jordani (in the Missouri Basin), P. lahontan (in the Lahontan basin) and P. bondi (in the Columbia and Lower Snake basins). It also provides diagnostic characters for each species.

Influence of Introgression and Geological Processes on Phylogenetic Relationships of Western North American Mountain Suckers (Pantosteus, Catostomidae) by Peter J. Unmack, Thomas E. Dowling, Nina J. Laitinen, Carol L. Secor, Richard L. Mayden, Dennis K. Shiozawa, Gerald R. Smith

Intense geological activity caused major topographic changes in Western North America over the past 15 million years. Major rivers here are composites of different ancient rivers, resulting in isolation and mixing episodes between river basins over time. This history influenced the diversification of most of the aquatic fauna. The genus Pantosteus is one of several clades centered in this tectonically active region. The eight recognized Pantosteus species are widespread and common across southwestern Canada, western USA and into northern Mexico. They are typically found in medium gradient, middle-elevation reaches of rivers over rocky substrates. This study (1) compares molecular data with morphological and paleontological data for proposed species of Pantosteus, (2) tests hypotheses of their monophyly, (3) uses these data for phylogenetic inferences of sister-group relationships, and (4) estimates timing of divergence events of identified lineages. Using 8055 base pairs from mitochondrial DNA protein coding genes, Pantosteus and Catostomus are reciprocally monophyletic, in contrast with morphological data. The only exception to a monophyletic Pantosteus is P. columbianus whose mtDNA is closely aligned with C. tahoensis because of introgression. Within Pantosteus, several species have deep genetic divergences among allopatric sister lineages, several of which are diagnosed and elevated to species, bringing the total diversity in the group to 11 species. Conflicting molecular and morphological data may be resolved when patterns of divergence are shown to be correlated with sympatry and evidence of introgression.

The article is open access, which means it is freely available:

Unmack, P.J., Dowling, T.E., Laitinen, N.J., Secor, C.L., Mayden, R.L., Shiozawa, D.K. & Smith, G.R. 2014. Influence of introgression and geological processes on phylogenetic relationships of western North American mountain suckers (Pantosteus, Catostomidae). PLoS One, 9(3): e90061.


Modoc Sucker no longer endangered?

Modoc Sucker. (USFWS photo, cropped)

Modoc Sucker (see photo information below)

After almost 30 years on the endangered species list, the Modoc sucker (Catostomus microps) is up for delisting, according to an article from the Klamath Falls Herald and News, by Lacey Jarrell (found on the Oregon Public Broadcasting site) (see also this excellent post on the Introduction to Fisheries blog). The species, which lives in a small area of northern California and southern Oregon, was listed by the state of California in 1980, then federally in 1985. Its decline was a side effect of the usual suspects: dams, logging, road-building and grazing practices, and its apparent recovery is due to concerted (and ongoing) efforts to curtail such damages.


Modoc Sucker in spawning colors

It is a small fish (usually only 3-6 inches, but can get up to 11 inches) with a small range (now estimated to include 12 streams, amounting to just over 42 miles of water). The Sacramento sucker (Catostomus occidantalis) inhabits some of the same waters as the Modoc sucker, and there was concern that hybridization could lead to both species’ demise. Fortunately, the two species use different habitats, spawn at different times of year, are much different in size (the Sacramento sucker can reach two feet in length), and very rarely hybridize.

Modoc Sucker

Modoc Sucker

The delisting process takes a year. There is a 60 day public comment period, so if you know something that needs to be said, you have until April 14, 2014 to say it. There will also be independent scientific evaluations of the species’ status. At the end of the year, the species can be delisted entirely, downgraded to threatened, or left on the endangered list.

[EDIT: I may have misread, or been misled by others’ misreading of, the process. The 12 month period referred to in articles about this story could end with the 2 month comment period. I have to read the USFWS documents more carefully to clarify this, but don’t have time to do that today. Any ESA experts care to comment?]

This is apparently only the second fish species to be considered for federal delisting, after the proposal only a week or two earlier to remove the Oregon chub from the Endangered Species List. As Jarrell’s article points out, fish are not usually delisted for reasons other than extinction. Biologists involved are justifiably excited at the prospect.

Could this move have been spurred by pressure from some entity with clout and a desire for the freedom to damage a watershed for short term gain? I’ve watched enough good environmental news turn bad over the years that I can’t help but be cynical. Though I’ve seen no hard evidence that this delisting is anything other than a consequence of policies and practices that accomplished their goal, I worry that this move is based on factors other than the species’ actual recovery.

The petitioner that started this process is The Pacific Legal Foundation, which calls itself “the first and oldest conservative/libertarian public interest law firm in the United States” and says it “was established for the purpose of defending and promoting individual and economic freedom in the courts.” When someone touting the recovery of a species has economic or philosophical, rather than scientific and biological, motives, I am suspicious.   If delisting occurs, regulations that have protected the species’ habitat (by making ranchers water their cattle away from streams and erect fences to keep cattle from grazing too close the water, for example) will be removed. If such oversight is relaxed, it will not be surprising if the same factors that almost eliminated the Modoc sucker before push it right back to the edge. Or over it.

It is important to note that two other federally listed (i.e., endangered) sucker species exist in the same area. The Lost River Sucker (Deltistes luxatus) and the Shortnose Sucker (Chasmistes brevirostris) (mistakenly called “snortnosed” in virtually all the news articles about the Modoc’s delisting, showing rampant plagiarism and ineffective editing) are found in the same counties and face the same threats as the Modoc Sucker. Both were listed in 1988. Though critical habitat designations were proposed in 1994, no action was taken. A second attempt was not made until 2011 (after a lawsuit that forced the issue), and this time the effort was successful. Regulations went into effect in January, 2013. According to Oregon Wild, however, major portions of the fishes’ ranges were left out of the designation, to the detriment of their recovery. They report that the area included in the new ruling is 75% smaller than what was proposed in 1994. Ironically, the Lost River is not included.

It is easy to believe but hard to stomach that for almost two decades after being recognized as endangered, nothing was done to actively protect these fish. Perhaps, given the apparent success of critical habitat regulations in the case of the Modoc Sucker, there may be hope for these other species. On the other hand, my initial reading of numerous federal documents and news articles seems to indicate that the protections now in effect fall into the “least we can do” category, and populations are apparently continuing to shrink. (See below for links.) In 2009 a petition was filed to delist both the Lost River and Shortnose, apparently by agricultural/irrigation interests. The feds determined there was not sufficient cause to delist. I would not be surprised to see more such petitions, since the battle over water and endangered species in Oregon (and California, probably) is still going strong.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service Modoc sucker species profile includes the 1985 listing and the new delisting proposal, among other documents:

Modoc Sucker by Joseph Tomelleri

Modoc Sucker by Joseph Tomelleri

For more information about the Lost River Sucker and Shortnose Sucker, see:
Oregon Wild’s Klamath suckers page (Oregon Wild sued the federal government to force the designation of critical habitat). For an article about the shortcomings of the critical habitat designation, see this article on the Oregon Wild site.
For more info, see the USFWS species fact sheet for the Lost River Sucker and the species fact sheet for the Shortnose Sucker. For all the official documents, see the USFWS species profile for the Lost River Sucker and the species profile for the Shortnose Sucker.

Photo credits:
All images from the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region on flickr. All 3 photos cropped by Olaf as permitted by their Creative Commons License.
Fish on hand original:
Spawning original:
Ruler original:

Tomelleri image: (shared under the same Creative Commons License as the photos).

Gar and suckers (and me) on the radio (and iTunes) today

As if the newspaper article about my deviant fishing tastes and the alligator gar I caught wasn’t enough, today a radio show is being broadcast on the same subjects. I was actually allowed to sit in a recording studio and talk for half an hour about my thoughts on fish, fishing, and more. After a week of imagining all the stupid things I might have said and strange sounds I might have made, I’m relieved to be able to say that I didn’t curse, belch, forget the names of my children, or otherwise completely screw it up. I’m still waiting for a scientist to correct my pronunciation of moxostoma, since I’ve only heard one or two people say it out loud. So chime in, scientists. There’s still time for me to be embarrassed.


It’s available through iTunes, or right here: Talking gar, suckers, fishing, family and more on "Outside" radio/podcast (318 downloads)

(Thanks to Dale Bowman and WKCC for permission to host the file on this site.)

iTunes users can find it here:

While you’re at it:

Previous episodes of “Outside” with a focus on gar and roughfish include:
An interview with Solomon David of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago (iTunes link)
An interview with Nathan Grider about the reintroducation of alligator gar in Illinois (iTunes link)
An interview with Nick Doumel, the (another) Brookfield Angler (iTunes link)

I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting. I’m grateful to Dale for hosting a show in which mentions of gar, redhorse and other rough fish are common enough that I can’t remember them all. Anyone interested in fish and nature more generally will probably find episodes of his show worth downloading, particularly those who live in IL, IN, WI and MI.

Gator Gar in the Newspaper!

If you have access a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times from Wednesday, Sep. 25, 2013, ignore the front page (mass shooting, corruption trial, food festival) and skip immediately to page 65. (If you happen to be my mom, I’ll send you a copy.)

The headline: “Gator (gar) in the house.” Try not to look at the small mugshot. Focus on the words and the bigger photo.

It’s also online:

Who would have guessed that catching an ugly, vicious, evil, worthless trash fish could get coverage in a major newspaper? Chicago is lucky to have a paper with an outdoor columnist whose interests include species at the fringes. (See my post about two state record redhorses:

On behalf of the fish (and anglers) usually found well out of the spotlight: Thanks, Dale Bowman!

Follow Dale on twitter (@BowmanOutside) or facebook ( Listen to “Outside,” his weekly radio show, on 91.1 WKCC (if you’re near Kankakee, IL) or download the podcast from iTunes-U.