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King of fish to return to Northern Wisconsin tribal lakes

LAC DU FLAMBEAU, Wis. - On Jan. 28, the Lac du Flambeau Natural Resources Department was notified that it would be awarded a grant totaling $120, 330 which will be used to restore the lake sturgeon population on the Lac du Flambeau Chain of Lakes and Bear River. Lac du Flambeau is among 60 tribes in the country that will receive federal grants to help endangered, threatened, and other wildlife on tribal lands.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded the grants under two new programs: the Tribal Landowner Incentive Program and the Tribal Wildlife Program. Two thousand proposals were submitted for the grant money, for funds totaling around $14,000,000. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton said, "We view this as a program that should become a regular part of our working relationship with the tribes."

Sturgeon has traditionally been a major part of the spring spearing activities of the Anishinaabe of Lac du Flambeau. The sturgeon provided food, leather, oil, and stories to the strong and patient person(s) fortunate enough to harvest one.

There have been few if any sightings of sturgeon in Lac du Flambeau since 1981, when the world record lake sturgeon was captured on Pokegama Lake. Before the early 1900s, lake sturgeon was plentiful on most of the open lakes on the Flambeau Chain. The construction of the dam at the confluence of Bear River and Flambeau Lake drastically altered and halted the natural spawning and migratory pattern of the sturgeon.

A trip to the George W. Brown Jr. Museum and Cultural Center reveals the size of Name-Ogima giigonh (King of Fish). The specimen on display at the museum weighs 195 pounds and is about 7' 1" in length. The fish is a slow-growing member of the pre-historic Acipenser species. Females reach sexual maturity between the ages of 20 - 25 and because of this slow reproductive cycle, part of the decimation of their numbers can be explained. Females carry a ratio of 4,000 eggs per pound. The slightest environmental change can be devastating.

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"Restoring the sturgeon will help the tribe protect and conserve the fisheries resources - per the tribe's Constitution and by-laws and the Integrated Resource Management Plan," said Larry Wawronowicz, Lac du Flambeau Natural Resource department manager. "It's a win-win situation. But, the biological facts about sturgeon indicate that this entire restoration process is going to take more than 25 years to realistically work." The grant amount must be supplemented on a yearly basis.

The Natural Resources Department will work cooperatively with outside agencies: Wisconsin DNR, UW-Milwaukee, the John G. Shedd Aquarium of Chicago and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In the Spring of 2004, the staff of the William J. Poupart Tribal Fish Hatchery in Lac du Flambeau will begin their research. Trips to the Fox and Wolf rivers to watch and assist in sturgeon spawning signal the beginning of what promises to be an eventful decade.

Eggs will be collected regionally from the Turtle/Flambeau Flowage, Bear, and Mississippi rivers. Ten thousand sturgeon eggs will be hatched at the hatchery. Of these 10,000 eggs, 4,000 fingerlings will be raised, tagged and stocked into the Flambeau Chain of Lakes at a rate of 4,000 fish per acre. These activities must be consistently executed for 10 years.

Tribal Chairman Butch St. Germaine, the person largely responsible for the capture of that 1981 world record sturgeon, said "Our goal is to establish a river population of 25 sturgeon per mile, which will include harvestable sized fish by 2025."

Wawronowicz points to a poster on his office wall that faces his desk: a GLIFWC poster of an Anishinaabe baby in a cradleboard. "I look at this poster every day at work, it reminds me and the staff that what we do right now is so important. One day, these youngsters will appreciate the work that this generation has done for them because they will still have the beautiful lakes and wildlife when they are adults. That's our incentive."