Michael Partlow with UDWR proudly holds his 2024 Researcher of the Year Award. Photo by Shannon Nelson- Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

It is our pleasure to announce Michael Partlow from Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) as the recipient of the distinguished 2024 Researcher of the Year Award from the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Mike has been deeply involved in recovery efforts for Colorado River basin fishes since 2011 when he started working as a Fisheries Technician at the Vernal Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. Since then, he has embraced numerous projects for the Recovery Program and has played many pivotal roles, with a plethora of accomplishments.

Mike takes great pride in his work showing the epitome of ethics, dedication and commitment which are exemplified by the Stewart Lake wetland project on the middle Green River. At this wetland, Mike and his valued crew members work to replenish populations of razorback sucker in the basin by entraining wild-spawned larval razorbacks into Stewart Lake each spring. Once these endangered fish are in the wetland, Mike and his crew work diligently to keep them thriving and healthy throughout the hot-dry summer before inserting permanent Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags into the fish and returning them to the Green River in fall.

Ongoing since 2012 and currently under Mike’s direction, this wetland project has provided a model of success for Recovery Program partners to follow and has directly contributed to the anticipated upcoming Endangered Species Act (ESA) down-listing ruling for the species. The general idea for the wetland remains the same year to year, but specific protocol details have improved annually, and Mike has honed the on-the-ground operations to near perfection. This highly technical project requires copious partner coordination (partners include U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program Director’s Office, Uintah Water Conservancy District, various irrigators, and other cooperators), wetland habitat management, daily trips to the site and delegation of personnel to ensure that the infrastructure is functional and in place when Flaming Gorge Dam water releases occur. The timing of these releases are critical to maximize entrainment of razorback sucker into Stewart Lake.

Mike Partlow captures Young-of-Year wild spawned razorback sucker from Stewart Lake in preparation of releasing the rare fish into the middle Green River. Photo by UDWR

Mike’s input and management skills have increased survival and recruitment of native fishes drastically at the wetland. During 2020, open water habitat was minimal due to cattail encroachment. Despite completely filling the wetland during the 2020 season, personnel only encountered 32 young-of-year razorback sucker when draining the wetland. In 2021 the wetland was left empty due to very dry hydrology. During this unexpected dry period Mike took advantage and worked with UDWR to remove invasive cattails at the wetland which helped to increase and maximize open water habitats within Stewart Lake. These efforts treated nearly 290 acres restoring extensive open water habitat in the wetland, resulting in 3,294 wild spawned razorback sucker encountered when draining Stewart Lake in 2023! Due to Mike’s meticulous commitment to success, razorback sucker larvae produced in the middle Green River have reliably found productive conditions at this wetland with thousands of young-of-year razorback sucker being entrained, tagged and released. The anticipated ESA down-listing of razorback sucker may happen soon partly due to these efforts. Moreover, the Stewart Lake project has proven to be so successful that other agencies in various regions around the U.S. are using it as a template for aquatic recovery efforts.

In the near future, people of the Uinta Basin may see an endangered fish species downlisted and they have Mike Partlow, the UDWR native aquatics staff and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program to thank!