A bill introduced Monday is designed to keep Wisconsin lake sturgeon off Endangered Species List

U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Green Bay introduced the bill, saying listing would threaten the state's successful management program while ignoring cultural importance and economic impact of spearing.

Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Lake sturgeon congregate in the shallows of the Wolf River near Shiocton ahead of spawning.

STOCKBRIDGE – In a high school gymnasium packed with people passionate about lake sturgeon, U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin on Monday introduced a bill designed to keep the fish in Wisconsin from being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Sturgeon Protected and Exempt from Absurd Regulations Act would proactively exempt the state's lake sturgeon from potential ESA action, Gallagher said.

Since 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been conducting a status review of lake sturgeon across the nation to determine if ESA listing is warranted.

If lake sturgeon were to receive protections under the federal program it would likely prohibit sturgeon spearing and fishing. The agency is scheduled to release its findings by June 30.

"We're here today to make sure that that does not happen," Gallagher said of a potential ESA listing for sturgeon in Wisconsin. "The concept of the SPEAR Act is simple. It would prohibit the lake sturgeon from being listed under the ESA in Wisconsin and make sure the management of our sturgeon stays where it belongs, in the hands of Wisconsinites."

U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher speaks Monday in Chilton while introducing a bill to prevent lake sturgeon in Wisconsin from being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Gallagher presented the bill at two meetings Monday, the first at 1 p.m. in Chilton to about 40 members of conservation and fishing clubs, the second at 7 p.m. to about 500 people at Stockbridge High School in Stockbridge.

The evening crowd was the largest to attend a meeting Gallagher has held in his 7-year career in Congress, according to his aides.

"Yes, it's a critically important issue to us," said Jim Patt of Fond du Lac, president of the Southwest Chapter of Sturgeon For Tomorrow. "An ESA listing could destroy our way of life."

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin and state Rep. Ty Bodden (R-Stockbridge) also spoke at both Monday meetings.

Gallagher and Bodden have been leading efforts to raise awareness of the issue and head off a potential ESA listing of sturgeon in Wisconsin.

In 2018 the USFWS received a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity requesting the agency list the lake sturgeon range-wide or as several distinct population segments.

The next year the agency concluded the petition presented "substantial scientific or commercial information indicating listing may be warranted" and initiated a status review process, according to a statement from Melissa Clark, USFWS public affairs specialist.

Gallagher said a listing would not only threaten the careful population management program in place but would ignore the cultural importance and economic impact of lake sturgeon and sturgeon spearing to northeastern Wisconsin. 

He described the region as the "sturgeon capital of the world."

"Nowhere else will you find such a unique cultural connection to the sturgeon than right here in Wisconsin," Gallagher said. "And if you don't believe me just come back in a few weeks and you'll see thousands of people behind me on Lake Winnebago."

U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher calls for a question Monday evening at a lake sturgeon management meeting at Stockbridge High School in Stockbridge.

The two-week annual sturgeon spearing season is responsible for an estimated $3.5 million economic impact in the Winnebago System and sturgeon conservation is a major part in the over $200 million annual impact fishing brings to the Winnebago System, according to studies conducted in the region.

In 2023 the Department of Natural Resources sold 13,219 sturgeon spearing licenses and 1,405 sturgeon were registered over the 16-day spearing season in February on the Winnebago System. Funds raised through license sales support DNR sturgeon management and help protect the sturgeon population.

But Gallagher said it's not just cultural or economic reasons that have earned the area the title of sturgeon capital of the world. The DNR also has the "world's most meticulous sturgeon management plan," Gallagher said.

"It's one that combines public and private efforts, from biologists at the DNR, fishermen in local fishing clubs up and down Lake Winnebago, and a variety of other stakeholders," Gallagher said. "This is exactly how it should be done, a common-sense partnership between a variety of stakeholders."

Under regulations established in consultation with fishing and conservation clubs, the DNR sets annual harvest caps for sturgeon on the Winnebago System. The system is designed to allow no more than 5% of the sturgeon population to be harvested per year.

And to monitor the population, it requires all sturgeon speared to be registered so biologists can collect length, weight, sex and age information. Such harvest data combined with information collected during spawning seasons allows the DNR to produce population estimates.

In 2022 the population was estimated at 12,304 adult females and 24,061 adult males, as well as an undetermined number of juvenile fish, according to the DNR sturgeon stock assessment report.

The Winnebago System (lakes Winnebago, Butte des Morts, Poygan and Winneconne and the Fox and Wolf rivers) has one of the largest, healthiest lake sturgeon populations in the world, said Ron Bruch, retired DNR fisheries director and sturgeon researcher.

The concern, however, is if lake sturgeon were to be listed under the ESA, the state's highly successful management of the sturgeon population and the time-honored tradition of sturgeon spearing would all come under threat, Gallagher said.

"Today we're going to take another step to make sure that northeast Wisconsin can remain a global leader in lake sturgeon management (by introducing the SPEAR Act)," Gallagher said.

Attendees at Monday's meetings were encouraged to write to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to express their opinions on lake sturgeon management.

Congressional aides said Monday the bill was seeing enthusiastic support, including from U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

The SPEAR Act has yet to be assigned to a committee. It's unclear if action on the bill will be taken before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces its decision later this year.

Grothman, a co-sponsor, said he was glad to see Gallagher draft the bill.

"It's important for the U.S. Congress to weigh in strongly and let the national folks what a good job we're doing here in Wisconsin," Grothman said. "This is just about common sense."