Cut­throat trout thrive in Her­mosa Creek

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Jonathan Romeo Pro­vided by Trout Un­lim­ited

DU­RANGO» When all is said and done, the up­per reaches of Her­mosa Creek, north of Du­rango, will have the largest con­tin­u­ous stretch of na­tive Colorado River cut­throat trout in the state.

“In Colorado, we’ve got a re­li­gion that we need to bring back the na­tives,” said Buck Skillen, a mem­ber of the lo­cal chap­ter of Trout Un­lim­ited. “And this is a big deal.”

The ef­fort to re­store Colorado River cut­throat trout in Her­mosa Creek dates to the early 1990s, when wildlife man­agers used a nat­u­ral wa­ter­fall on the creek’s east fork as a pro­tec­tive bar­rier.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife cleared out non­na­tive species of trout — specif­i­cally brook, brown and rain­bows — us­ing a short-lived, or­ganic poi­son known as rotenone. And in their place, it re­leased Colorado River cut­throat trout, giv­ing the wa­ter­way to the na­tive fish for the first time in prob­a­bly 100 years.

“And we’re go­ing to work real hard to keep it that way,” Skillen said.

In the late 1880s, West­ern set­tlers fished the Colorado River cut­throat trout to the point of ex­tinc­tion. Then, to keep an im­por­tant food source avail­able, they dumped other species of trout into the cut­throat’s habi­tat.

The in­tro­duc­tion of brook, brown and rain­bow trout fur­ther ex­ac­er­bated any chance of a cut­throat re­vival, be­cause the fish is ill-equipped to com­pete with the in­va­sive species, which take over rivers through pre­da­tion and hy­bridiza­tion.

The mag­ni­tude of the cut­throat’s loss has never been truly quan­ti­fied, but its range — which once spanned Colorado, New Mex­ico, Utah and Wy­oming — was dra­mat­i­cally re­duced, mostly be­cause of habi­tat loss, over­har­vest­ing and com­pe­ti­tion with non­na­tive species.

Clay Kampf, a fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist for the San Juan Na­tional For­est, said the best es­ti­mates show the Colorado River cut­throat trout is now found in about 14 per­cent of its his­toric nat­u­ral habi­tat.

Fac­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice list­ing the Colorado River cut­throat trout as “en­dan­gered,” which would bring a host of re­stric­tive pro­tec­tions, Colorado, Utah and Wy­oming en­tered a three-state agree­ment to lead an ag­gres­sive rein­tro­duc­tion pro­gram.

“It works well for both par­ties,” said Jim White, an aquatic bi­ol­o­gist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “This way, the states and lo­cal groups have more say in where and how to man­age th­ese fish. And it ben­e­fits the (Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice) be­cause their re­sources are stretched pretty thin.”

In the last decade, the state of Wy­oming has re­stored more than 60 miles of Colorado River cut­throat habi­tat, with most of that oc­cur­ring in the up­per Green River drainage by the town of Big Piney.

There, Mark Smith of the Wy­oming Game and Fish Depart­ment said the pop­u­la­tion has been strug­gling since rein­tro­duc­tion. The fish haven’t spawned early enough, he said, which means they don’t grow big enough to sur­vive win­ter.

“The turn­around hasn’t been as quick as we would have hoped, but we’re get­ting there,” Smith said. “We’re cer­tainly mak­ing gains and go­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

In Utah, the pro­gram has been wildly suc­cess­ful, with hun­dreds of miles of streams re­stored with their na­tive species of trout, said Randy Oplinger of the Utah Di­vi­sion of Wildlife Re­sources. Oplinger said Utah has been the most am­bi­tious of the three states, prob­a­bly be­cause of the fact many projects are lo­cated on fed­eral lands man­aged by agen­cies open to largescale restora­tion ef­forts.

This year alone, the depart­ment plans to re­store 75 miles of cut­throat habi­tat within the Colorado River basin. And Oplinger said trout pop­u­la­tions tend to fair well through­out the river sys­tem.

“We started hav­ing a pol­icy of go big or don’t do it at all,” Oplinger said. “And there’s still a lot of room for us to do more work.” The state of Colorado has started nu­mer­ous restora­tion projects, and the ef­fort is on­go­ing, re­sult­ing in about 890 miles of streams con­tain­ing Colorado River cut­throat trout. But still, that’s only about 7 per­cent of its his­toric range.

Once a fi­nal bar­rier is con­structed this sum­mer on Her­mosa Creek, just be­low its con­flu­ence with the east fork, an ef­fort to ded­i­cate more than 23 miles solely to the cut­throat trout will al­most be com­plete.

Two decades ago, Her­mosa Creek was rec­og­nized as an ideal place for a restora­tion project be­cause of the creek’s out­stand­ing wa­ter qual­ity and be­cause of its easy ac­ces­si­bil­ity through For­est Ser­vice Road 578, which runs be­hind Pur­ga­tory Re­sort.

Af­ter the wa­ter­fall near Sig Creek Camp­ground was used as a nat­u­ral block­ade from non-na­tive in­tru­sion in the early 1990s, two more hu­man-made bar­ri­ers were built in 2007 and 2013.

This sum­mer, the U.S. For­est Ser­vice will be­gin con­struc­tion on the fi­nal bar­rier at the Her­mosa-east fork con­flu­ence to safe­guard the wa­ters above the block­ade for the Colorado River cut­throat.

CPW’s White said that in the seg­ments of the creek that have al­ready been re­pop­u­lated with cut­throat, pop­u­la­tion trends are en­cour­ag­ing. He said a re­cent sweep a few years ago found about 400 to 600 fish per mile.

“Pop­u­la­tions above 400 fish per mile are usu­ally ranked in the good to ex­cel­lent cat­e­gory,” White said. “We’ve seen nat­u­ral re­pro­duc­tion ... very shortly af­ter that project on the main stem (of Her­mosa) was com­pleted.”

With a suc­cess­ful stretch of river re­turned to its na­tive species, wildlife man­agers are ex­pect­ing Her­mosa Creek to get a lot of use from ex­cited an­glers.

As a re­sult, a strict catc­hand-re­lease pol­icy is on that sec­tion of river, White said, and there are other mea­sures, such as habi­tat im­prove­ment and lim­it­ing bank ero­sion, that the agen­cies can take to pro­tect the fish.

Her­mosa Creek, north of Du­rango, has been made a more hos­pitable place for na­tive Colorado River cut­throat trout to thrive.

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