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Students use novel science in effort to reintroduce endangered fish

Innovation Center team continues work with northern redbelly dace

Taryn McDermid did not think at 15 she would be working to save an endangered fish species, but on Thursday she stood in front of a room of wildland biologists explaining her work doing exactly that.

The Niwot High School sophomore and the other four members of the northern redbelly dace data science project team delivered a formal presentation to the members of Boulder County Parks and Open Space about their work to save the endangered species.

“I just think it's really cool that I have the opportunity to do that, and that I have the opportunity to make a real world impact that I can see,” McDermid said.

Northern redbelly dace are a freshwater minnow native to the Front Ranch, and the 2013 floods nearly wiped them out.

Over the past couple years McDermid, Silvercreek High School sophomore Mark Reyhold, Niwot senior Mateo Bandera, Erie High School sophomore Bethany Lonsinger, and Niwot sophomore Jenna Watson have worked to help reintroduce the fish at the St. Vrain Valley Schools Innovation Center.

“They have literally gotten their boots wet, their hands wet, their clothes wet,” biosciences teacher Jayme Sneider said of the student’s fieldwork.

The group explained their work monitoring conditions at three ponds to see if the environment is ideal for the dace, which the students have raised from eggs to adulthood. They have been using innovative methods to collect data from PH level to turbidity to conductivity of the water.

“We are collecting this data to see how good the ecosystem is so that we can end up releasing more fish, more of the dace specifically, into the ecosystem to help get their endangered status no longer endangered,” McDermid said. “We want more of them. They’re important.”

The group has so far released the dace at two sites, a private pond in Lyons in fall 2020 and Webster Pond at Pella Crossing in fall 2021. Since the 2020 release, the students have been able to confirm that dace are still living in that pond.

“I think the biggest success for me at least was doing that release … and a few months later hearing back that there were still fish there and the fish were still alive. That was amazing,” Lonsinger said.

At Webster Pond, the site of the second release, the students haven’t yet been able to confirm the fish are still there, but added that conditions have been ideal for dace.

With the help of other student groups at the Innovation Center and partnerships across the state, they continue to innovate this type of data collection. There are hopes to soon install a camera at Webster Pond to monitor for fish in a less invasive way, using AI technology to identify the dace.

The group has also been working with the Ocean First Institute to collect water samples that might hold tiny strands of dace DNA. Using the same PCR technology that many associate with COVID-19 tests, that DNA can be amplified and then searched for dace DNA signatures.

The group of wildlife biologists were impressed by the student’s work and presentation, asking a number of questions and giving feedback on what types of information Boulder County Parks and Open Space could most use. Robert “Mac” Kobza, a wildlife biologist for the department, emphasized that the work by these students is truly pushing boundaries.

“I have to say what these guys are doing in the classroom is novel to science,” he said. “There are very few, if maybe one, other program in the state that has done anything like this, raising native fish in the classroom.”

Along with Boulder County Parks and Open Space and the Ocean First Institute, the Innovation Center students also have partnered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Denver Zoo, Lyons Middle Senior High School and graduate students with the University of Colorado Boulder to implement the reintroduction of the species to the St. Vrain River. Last year, the partnership was nationally recognized with the National Association of Counties Achievement Award in the Parks and Recreation Category.

The students are currently raising another batch of redbelly dace and hope to get back into the field soon to collect some more data and see if they can find the fish at Webster Pond.

“You guys are doing things beyond just caring for fish and releasing them,” Kobza said to the students. “You are making an impact at the state level for an endangered fish species in the South Platte Basin.”