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Prehistoric fish getting 2nd chance in Illinois

Published: Monday, Sept. 30, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – The fearsome-looking alligator gar, a fish with a 120-million-year earthly history, hasn’t been in Illinois’ waterways for two decades.

But with the help of federal officials, the (Springfield) State Journal Register reported Sunday, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is reintroducing the fish.

Named for their imposing snout and rows of sharp teeth, the alligator gar doesn’t bother people. The top predator’s size is imposing, growing up to 200 pounds. But they have to be big enough to survive to maturity, said Rob Hilsabeck, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

“They are long and slender, so they go down easy,” Hilsabeck said. “So, you either eat the alligator gar now or he is going to eat you later. It’s a fish-eat-fish world.”

Their size made them attractive to fishermen who plucked them out of shallow backwaters, which contributed, as did loss of habitat, to their demise in Illinois.

Although they had been seen as far north as Beardstown, about 45 miles northwest of Springfield, within the last century, the last confirmed alligator gar catch was in the far southern Illinois city of Cairo in 1966. Natural Resources officials declared them gone from Illinois in 1994.

In recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has worked with states along the Mississippi River, which the alligator gar has called home for three million years, to reintroduce the animal.

State officials have released the fish in places they consider promising, such as the Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife area in central Illinois’ Cass County. And Hilsabeck released more than 650 gar, averaging 13 inches, into the Little Sangamon River and Crane Lake earlier this month.

They grow quickly, said Natural Resources biologist Nathan Grider, who studied alligator gar in graduate school. Of 100 he observed at The Nature Conservancy’s Merwin Preserve at Spunky Bottoms in western Illinois’ Brown County in 2011 and 2012, the largest grew to 14 pounds and over three feet in just 17 months.

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Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com

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