Antelope Island a refuge for native Utah fish
Preservation • Wildlife officials work to increase numbers of least chub — once abundant in Utah — around the state, including on Antelope Island.
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Antelope Island • "What kind of fish live there?"

It is one of the first questions people unfamiliar with the Great Salt Lake ask when visiting.

Locals usually laugh and respond that the only aquatic species associated with the lake are brine shrimp.

That isn't exactly true if you count the fresh water found on the largest island of the Great Salt Lake.

State wildlife officials are using a small pond on the west side of Antelope Island as a refuge for a rare native fish. About 1,000 least chub were released in an impoundment on Garden Creek last week. It was the second time the fish have been planted on Antelope Island.

Least chub are tiny fish — about 2 inches as an adult — that once swam the fresh water of Lake Bonneville and its tributaries. In modern times, least chub were found in tributaries to the Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake and drainages like the Provo, Beaver and Sevier.

Loss of habitat and direct competition with non-native species have dwindled the least chub population. Enough so that the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Utah fish warranted inclusion on the Endangered Species list but precluded the listing because other species with a higher priority need attention first.

Regardless of the decision not to include the chub on the protected species list, Utah wildlife officials are still making efforts to preserve and expand the small population.

"They are teetering on the edge," said Paul Thompson, an aquatics biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources involved with the release on Antelope Island.

"We are trying to be proactive and working with partners and any interested parties to protect the least chub from being listed."

This is not the first time fish have been moved to Antelope Island. Least chub were stocked in Garden Creek in 2004. The fish did well for six years before a drought on the island caught up to them and wiped out the population.

"They do very well when there are no non-native fish present," Thompson said. "We had tens of thousands until the drought hit."

Biologists decided to try again a little higher up on the creek where there is no record of the water ever drying up.

Thompson said there are 10 locations in northern Utah with least chub and about 15 across the state that were started with six known wild populations.

A bright spot for least chub was the recent use of the fish by Davis and Salt Lake county mosquito abatement teams.

The chub have been being released in small waters, like backyard ponds, where they feast on mosquito larvae.

brettp@sltrib.com