Wildlife refuge important for the future of alligator gar

Published 12:02 am Sunday, August 8, 2010

NATCHEZ — The St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge appears to be a strategic entity when it comes to the alligator gar species of fish.

In six states where alligator gar once thrived, they are now considered rare at best. Significant efforts are being made to halt the decline, and St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge is playing an increasingly vital role.

An alligator gar can measure 10 feet in length and weigh more than 300 pounds, making it one of the largest species of freshwater fish in North America.

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With its wide, alligator-like head, a mouth full of sharp teeth and a long, olive-colored body covered with thick, boney scales, this impressive fish sports a striking appearance that is quite befitting its name. Unfortunately, the historic range and overall numbers of alligator gar in North America are decreasing at a concerning rate.

It is believed that the backwaters and tributaries of rivers such as the Mississippi River serve as a nursery for juvenile alligator gar for their first several years of life. These type habitats appear vital for the alligator gar’s long-term success. Water control structures such as levees and dams have greatly restricted gar movements, and are essentially acting as a barrier between them and much of their ideal environment. This is where St. Catherine Creek Refuge comes into play.

Alligator gar have an affinity for the refuge. In fact, every year for the past 10 years, Ricky Campbell, manager of the Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery in Tupelo, has been traveling to St. Catherine Creek to capture the huge gar for their brood stock. An estimated 200 to 400 adult gar weighing anywhere from 20 to 200 pounds have been taken to the hatchery and allowed to spawn.

Many questions still remain about the gar on St. Catherine Creek Wildlife Refuge. Where do they go before, during and after spawning? Do the gar move back into the Mississippi River at some point, and do they return every year? These are just a few of the questions Kayla DiBenedetto, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is trying to answer.

According to DiBenedetto, 20 alligator gar were tagged this past spring with radio-telemetry transmitters in order to track their movements. Receivers were strategically placed in areas frequented by the gar, and each time, a tagged gar comes within range of the receiver, it records the tag number of the fish, the date and the time.

“We want to know what movements the gar are making in the St. Catherine Creek area when they are preparing to spawn,” DiBenedetto said. “We believe the gar are using Butler Lake as a pre-spawn staging area.”

It is believed that the gar move from the lake into the shallow, flooded fields to spawn. With the long-term transmitters, they will be able to monitor the same gar for about five years. The data gathered from this study will go a long way in answering the questions at hand.

In the future, DiBenedetto plans to video-document the spawning of alligator gar on the refuge in order to concretely establish timing and location. She also wants to tag more gar and place receivers in or near the Mississippi River in order to collect critical movement data.

St. Catherine Creek Refuge will be a key in finding out just exactly what alligator gar need in order to thrive and reproduce. The goal is to find out more specifically what gar like so much about St. Catherine and then identify other areas along the basin that can be maintained or created for the gar. The ultimate objective, of course, is to restore the alligator gar to its historic range.

Bob Strader, refuge manager at St. Catherine Creek, embraces their local role in the broad restoration of alligator gar.

“Fishing season for alligator gar is closed on the refuge,” Strader said. “We don’t allow any take.”

They are also taking steps to protect critical habitat in the area. For example, refuge personnel will be monitoring how silt eroding from the hillsides may be affecting spawning areas. All current and future efforts are worthwhile because, Strader said, St. Catherine Creek Refuge is critical to the long-term survival of the remarkable alligator gar.

For more information on St. Catherine Creek Refuge and alligator gar call 601-442-6696, or visit their Web site at www.fws.gov/saintcatherinecreek.