150 Boise icons: Lonesome Larry

April 21, 2013 

Did you know? Lonesome Larry has his own Facebook page. It describes him as sleek, slim, fire-engine red and plenty virile. His personal interests include “long romantic conversations with fisheries biologists” and “fleeing predators.”

DARIN OSWALD

Two decades ago the sockeye destined to become one of the most famous salmon in the West took a solitary 900-mile swim up the Columbia and Snake rivers.

An easy trip? No way. It presented obstacles that would have stopped a less hale fish: 6,500 feet in elevation gain; hungry eagles, bobcats and bears, not to mention eight dams standing in the way.

The sockeye's aim: making it back to Redfish Lake to spawn. He made it, but no other sockeye did. Just one year before, in 1991, the federal government added sockeye to its endangered species list.

Allyson Coonts, the 7-year-old daughter of Sawtooth Hatchery technician Phil Coonts, named the single sockeye Lonesome Larry.

Scientists intervened. They captured Larry and extracted his milt to fertilize eggs laid by female fish in 1996 and 1997.

In the following years, more fish made it back to Redfish. Returns topped 1,000 apiece in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, just 243 sockeye made it back to Redfish Lake.

It's normal for salmon runs to vary in size, affected by river and ocean conditions and other factors, said Dave Cannamela, superintendent at the MK Nature Center. It's more concerning when populations are so small.

Present day salmon returns, while they're an improvement over the infamous year of Lonesome Larry, are nothing like the 1880s, when between 25,000 and 35,000 made it back to Redfish Lake - so many that someone considered building a cannery on its shores.

The ultimate success of Lonesome Larry and biologists' efforts is unknown. The dams that make salmon migration so tough remain in place. Redfish Lake sockeye remain on the federal endangered species list.

Lonesome Larry is arguably an icon for the entire state of Idaho, not just its Capital City. But Boise has a strong claim on the celebrated fish. He's been stuffed and is hanging on a wall at the MK Nature Center at 600 S. Walnut St.

He's one of the biggest attractions there, said Cannamela.

Lonesome Larry was sacrificed in the milt harvesting process. He lives on in the sockeye that return to Redfish with his rare genetic code, the last of its kind that exist, said Cannamela. Some of his milt is still on ice, capable of fathering more fish.

- On May 2, the MK Nature Center will host the unveiling of new murals by artist Marcus Pierce that enhance the fish viewing windows. Festivities, including a silent auction, social hour with refreshments and a chance to meet the artist, begin at 5 p.m.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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