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The strong comeback of lake sturgeon in Minnesota is celebrated year after year with a two-staged, statewide catch-and-release fishing season implemented in 2015.

The species' survival and recovery story has been decades in the making, enabled by the Clean Water Act of 1972 and further coaxed by state and federal conservation efforts that ended commercial fishing, removed dams, stocked baby sturgeons and restored spawning areas.

In the Rainy River and portions of Lake of the Woods, for example, sturgeon numbers have grown more than six-fold since the late 1980s to a count of more than 100,000 fish at least 3 feet, 4 inches long.

Two years ago in the Upper Red River of the North Watershed, the rally continued with clear video footage of sturgeons congregating and spawning in the Ottertail River for the first time in 125 years.

"We're really proud of the work that's been done," state Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons said. "Our populations are trending in the right direction."

Yet Minnesota and other sturgeon fishing states now find themselves at the mercy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the agency decides by June 30 whether to propose listing the species as threatened or endangered. The process started seven years ago, when the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the government to list lake sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act, across their range.

Kevin and Jenn Hinrichs own a sturgeon fishing resort on the Rainy River, just east of Baudette. Their financial future rides on the outcome. Will the feds grant species protection? If so, would Minnesota's thriving, self-sustaining sturgeon population be exempted? What if the fish are listed as threatened or endangered? Could state-licensed anglers still fish for them?

"For us it's a case of potential financial ruin," Hinrichs said. "But the economic impact of an adverse decision would be widespread — bait suppliers, resorts, restaurants, fishing guides, retail stores.

"And why?" he continued. "Our sturgeon are at the point where they are recovered. … Minnesota's management plan on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy is working 100 percent."

Parsons said he doesn't know what direction the Fish and Wildlife Service will go, and the federal agency isn't providing any hints.

State fisheries biologists in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan have submitted data to demonstrate that lake sturgeon in their states shouldn't be listed. At the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Dave Olfelt, Fish and Wildlife Division director, recently wrote to St. Croix River sturgeon guide Darren Troseth, assuring him that federal officials know where Minnesota stands.

"We have worked to sustain and restore populations in MN and MN supports a fishery that provides terrific recreation in a number of distinct watersheds," Olfelt wrote in response to an inquiry from Troseth. "I dislike the current uncertainty as much as anyone, and I appreciate that you, as a guide, have a big stake in the outcome."

A month ago, the DNR's Fisheries Management Team discussed the sturgeon species status assessment process by the Fish and Wildlife Service. According to the meeting notes, the DNR has provided feedback over the past two years to counter "factual errors, inconsistencies and incomplete discussions and citations" in the assessment documents.

"We also provided extensive commentary on why these errors could result in an incorrect listing of lake sturgeon as threatened or endangered in Minnesota waters," according to the official meeting notes.

Input from the DNR into the assessment process has stressed Minnesota's ongoing, successful management of lake sturgeon, the meeting notes said. But as of March 4 — the date of the Fisheries Management Team meeting — "MN DNR continues to have trepidation" with the assessment process and "emergent lobbying activities outside of the process."

The assessment process started in 2018 after the Center for Biological Diversity said in its petition that lake sturgeon populations in Minnesota, Lake Superior, the Missouri River, the Ohio River, the White River in Arkansas and the lower Mississippi River "may qualify as 'endangered.'" Populations elsewhere, including in the upper Mississippi River basin, may qualify as "threatened," the petition said.

Among the factors making lake sturgeon vulnerable to depletion are habitat alteration (including zebra mussel infestations) and slow reproductive rates, according to the petition's executive summary.

As the decision deadline of June 30 approaches, the Fish and Wildlife Service has several options. The service could determine that any type of listing is unwarranted. Another option is listing lake sturgeon "throughout their range." Then again, the service could propose species protection according to "distinct population segments." The publication of any proposed rule would trigger a public comment period.

Meanwhile, Minnesotans are actively fishing for sturgeon on a catch-and-release basis. Lake sturgeon is a species of special concern in the state, but fishing opportunities are plentiful and season dates vary depending on location and the spawning cycle. Minnesota allows for some of the giant fish to be harvested, with a special tag, but the limit per angler is one fish per year. Other special regulations apply.