PROVO — Wildlife officials may begin removing carp from Utah Lake as early as next spring in an effort to save endangered June sucker populations.

Carp are devastating Utah Lake, said Chris Keleher, conservation biologist with the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program.

"All indicators are that the carp population is extremely large," Keleher said. "At this point, we don't see any natural control of that population."

Averaging about 2 feet and weighing 8.7 pounds, the fish have reduced the lake bed to mud in the 123 years since they were introduced by settlers.

They eat vegetation, stripping it away from the edge of the lake, making it all but impossible for the spawn of the endangered June sucker to hide from predators. As the carp forage the mud, they churn up years of trapped phosphorus, feeding algae that deplete the water of oxygen.

Scientists have just completed a 15-day, $130,000 study in which more than 34,000 carp were captured, tagged and released during the first phase of the study. Another 10,000 carp were then captured. Of those, only 2 percent — 208 carp — had tags, Keleher said. Over the next few weeks, experts will use that information to determine a statistical carp population.

Because so few tagged carp were found in the second phase of the study, a precise number of carp in the lake will be hard to define. Researchers will recommend to June sucker officials that another survey be done next spring, with carp removal beginning at the same time. A final decision will be made by January.

"If we want to get a more diverse community of fish in Utah Lake, we have to control the carp," Keleher said. "That means more fish, including the June sucker. You would get restoration of aquatic plants, and you get habitat complexity that provides cover for young fish and aquatic bugs, and with that comes more diverse bird species and things like that. There is an entire ecosystem response if we can get control of the carp."

In 1994, the federal government named the June sucker an endangered species.