Idaho's 39 native fish sculpted in paper offer a look at species few will ever see

click to enlarge Idaho's 39 native fish sculpted in paper offer a look at species few will ever see
Geoff Crimmins
Artist Lonnie Hutson was inspired to sculpt Idaho's native fish in paper after more than 30 years in the state as a river guide.

Surviving as a fish in today’s waters can easily hinge on winning a popularity contest.

Most stunning to land: white sturgeon.

Most popular to eat: salmon.

Anglers and diners’ preferences can shape whether a species is studied or protected, which leaves dozens of other underwater denizens obscured under ever-shifting waters. In the Moscow exhibit “38 Minus: The Idaho Fish Project,” Idaho’s 39 known native fish species are recreated in handmade paper relief sculpture, allowing people an up-close view of some increasingly rare creatures few will ever encounter.

“A lot of these fish are nearly impossible to get your hands on,” says Michael Quist, the University of Idaho fish and wildlife professor who helped artist Lonnie Hutson acquire some of the more uncommon fish from agencies and researchers around the state.

The sculptures, many rendered in detail down to the scales, range in size from North America’s largest freshwater fish, the white sturgeon, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds; to one of Idaho’s smallest, the extremely rare sand roller, a member of the trout-perch family less than 3 inches long that has only been found in the lower Clearwater and Snake rivers.

click to enlarge Idaho's 39 native fish sculpted in paper offer a look at species few will ever see
Geoff Crimmins
The Nez Perce Tribe donated four coho salmon to the project. The tribe is working to restore the fish to the Clearwater River.

“When we were putting this together experts indicated it hadn’t been seen since the ‘70s,” says Hutson, who titled the project “38 minus” because the sand roller was possibly extinct and the future survival of other species is questionable. Over three years he navigated laws to obtain endangered fish like the sturgeon, which was purchased from a fish farm; and a threatened bull trout, which was an incidental kill from a lake trout removal project at Lake Pend Oreille. The Nez Perce Tribe contributed four coho salmon, a species it is working to restore to the Clearwater where it became officially extinct in the 1980s.

With a background in art and architecture, Hutson lives in Deary and has worked as a river guide and outfitter on Idaho’s rivers for more than 30 years. Over the decades he watched ecosystems change. On the Snake River, sand slowly disappeared after the arrival of Hells Canyon Dam, along with freshwater mussels. The Salmon River’s namesake fish went away, along with wildlife that depended on it. The fact that Idaho’s river systems were unhealthy became strikingly apparent when he visited Alaska and saw untouched rivers abundant with life, he says.

The purpose of “38 Minus” “is to make you more appreciative of what should be the native environment,” says Hutson, who worked elements like plants, sticks, hornet’s nests and sand from fishes’ native environments into each piece. Idaho’s state fish, the cutthroat trout, is surrounded by purple garnets from Emerald Creek where the state gem, the star garnet, is found.

To sculpt a paper fish, Hutson started with a fresh or thawed frozen fish and made several casts before creating a final rubber mold that he then filled with paper pulp and manipulated.

Rendered in paper the “ick” factor of fish is removed and their beauty revealed, Hutson says. “They become very accessible.”

Placards throughout the Prichard Art Gallery exhibit give life histories of various species.

One of Idaho’s most unique, and oldest fish, is the snake-shaped Pacific lamprey. Originally distributed throughout the Snake River and its tributaries downstream of Shoshone Falls, lamprey are now restricted to the Clearwater and Salmon river drainages and tributaries of the Snake River downstream of Hells Canyon Dam. With a life cycle tied to salmon, its numbers also plunged with the introduction of dams.

“The juveniles reside in fine sediment for up to five years,” explains Quist. “Imagine how many things we do that can influence the survival of those juveniles over five years? Probably less than 1 percent of people in Idaho have ever seen one.” And that is being generous, Quist adds.

Besides 39 native fish species, Idaho rivers support 55 non-natives. Some of these fish prey on the natives. Some states have a bounty program for the capture of northern pikeminnow, which eats salmon. The salmon and minnow are both native fish.

“Part of the problem is that dams have turned rivers into reservoirs where it’s easy to prey on migrating fish,” Quist says. “There are ongoing debates in the profession on how nonnative species like the smallmouth bass and the walleye are more effective predators. Nevertheless, it’s all about values; we value salmon more than the northern pikeminnow. That’s what it boils down to.”

Gallery director Roger Rowley says the exhibit is an important intersection between art and science. It presents the aesthetic beauty of fish while making their basic biology accessible. It also showcases paper making as a fine art when it is often seen as a craft.

Starting this week, regional school children will tour the exhibit. At the end of each tour they will make their own paper fish. if you go What: “38 Minus: The Idaho Fish Project” When: On display through April 6 Where: Prichard Art Gallery, 414/416 S. Main St., Moscow Admission: Free Prichard Art Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.