Colorado signs on to Rio Grande cutthroat trout conservation agreement

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout
Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and wildlife:

An updated conservation agreement and strategy plan to protect the Rio Grande cutthroat trout was recently signed by the states of Colorado and New Mexico, three Native American tribes and several federal agencies.

The agencies started working on range-wide protection plans for the species in 2003. This is a continuation of the initial agreement, but also assures that the agencies will work cooperatively to maintain the viability of this special species of trout. The agreement provides overall guidance to each agency and sets a conservation strategy that will be used in Colorado and New Mexico where significant populations of the fish exist.

“This is a voluntary agreement, but all the parties are dedicated to working on important Rio Grande cutthroat trout issues,” said John Alves, southwest region senior aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The agencies that signed the agreement are: Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the BLM, the National Park Service, the Jicarilla-Apache Nation, the Mescalero-Apache Nation, and the Taos Pueblo tribe. The effort is also being supported by Colorado Trout Unlimited and the New Mexico Council of Trout Unlimited.

As stated in the agreement, the goal of the new 10-year plan is to “assure long-term viability of Rio Grande cutthroat trout throughout its historic range by minimizing or removing threats to the species and promoting conservation.” The agencies have completed numerous conservations projects for the species throughout Colorado and New Mexico. To read about some of the projects, go to: http://cpw.state.co.us/Research/Aquatic/CutthroatTrout/Pages/CutthroatTrout.aspx.

The trout has been a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2008. A decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether the species will be listed is scheduled for September.

The Rio Grande cutthroat is classified as a species of “greatest conservation need” by New Mexico, and as a “species of special concern” in Colorado. The agencies are working cooperatively to protect the populations to keep the species healthy. The cooperative effort might also provide the advantage of keeping the fish off of the federal endangered species list.

The fish is found primarily in high elevation streams and lakes of the Rio Grande, the Canadian River and the Pecos River in Colorado and New Mexico. It now only occupies just 12 percent of its historic habitat in approximately 800 miles of streams. Biologists estimate that 127 conservation populations now exist in the two states, and 57 of those populations are considered to be secure.

The historic range of Rio Grande cutthroat trout has been reduced over the last 150 years due to many changes on the landscape, including: drought, water infrastructure, habitat changes, hydraulic changes, hybridization with rainbow trout and other species of cutthroat trout, and competition with brown trout and brook trout. As a result of these changes, Rio Grande cutthroat trout populations are restricted primarily to headwater streams.

“This agreement provides a detailed road map of the ways local, state, federal and tribal agencies will work together to continue to conserve this trout,” said Kirk Patten, assistant chief of fisheries for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. “The Rio Grande cutthroat trout is unique. It is found only in the southwest and has the distinction of being the southernmost distribution of any form of cutthroat trout.”

For more than 20 years, agency biologists have been searching for Rio Grande cutthroat populations, studying habitat and restoring the species to streams. That work and more will continue under the conservation agreement.

Some of the work that the agencies will conduct includes: maintenance of Rio Grande cutthroat brood stock; stream surveys and habitat improvement; construction of barriers to keep non-native trout out of conservation waters; removal of non-native fish and restocking with this species; testing for disease; conducting genetic analysis; fencing sensitive riparian areas; and on-going monitoring of populations.

The agencies will meet annually to discuss projects and progress, and to plan conservation work. A full range-wide species assessment will be conducted every five years.

“Rio Grande cutthroat trout are facing many issues, including habitat loss, competition from the introduction of non-native trout, drought, fire and other changes,” Alves said. “A major, coordinated effort like this one is what’s needed to maintain this important species.”

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here and here.

Colorado River Outfitters Association: Commercial rafting on the Arkansas River = $55 million

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From The Mountain Mail (Nick Jumey):

Commercial rafting on the Arkansas River brought an economic impact of more than $55 million from 179,535 user days in 2013, according to an end-of-year report by Colorado River Outfitters Association.

The association defines a “user day” as “a paying guest on a river for any part of a day.”

To calculate economic impact, the association multiplies user days by “direct expenditures” and the “economic multiplier.”

Direct expenditures are the total cash outlay for rafting, food, lodging, etc., spent in the local area by one river rafting customer in one day. The economic multiplier is the number of times a dollar is spent in the local area before being spent outside that area – 2.56 times, according to the Colorado Tourism Board.

Overall, the report showed rivers in Colorado had an economic impact of more than $145 million in 2013, an increase of 13.5 percent from 2012’s $127 million. In addition, rafters spent nearly 50,000 more user days on Colorado rivers in 2013, including an increase of 10,000 user days on the Arkansas River alone.

The Arkansas River accounted for 38.89 percent of the market share of river rafting impact in 2013, the largest share by a wide margin. The next closest rivers in terms of market shares were the Colorado River (23 percent combined) and Clear Creek River (13.2 percent), according to the report.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) recently cited the association report as a reason to cosponsor S. 1794, also known as the Browns Canyon National Monument and Wilderness Act of 2013.

In a press release, Bennet cited the report’s findings, including the $55 million economic impact, and noted that the Arkansas River is particularly popular for whitewater rafters.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), aims to protect the Browns Canyon region as “an invaluable economic and natural resource for Chaffee County and the state” and would preserve 22,000 acres along the Arkansas River as a national monument.

“The rugged and unique beauty of Browns Canyon attracts outdoor enthusiasts from around the world who come to hike, camp, climb and raft,” Bennet said in a press release. “This generates millions of dollars of revenue for our local economies.
“Designating Browns Canyon as a national monument will not only allow future generations to enjoy the whitewater rapids in the heart of the Rockies, but it will also ensure that the area remains an economic driver and job creator for the region.”
Keith Baker, Buena Vista, executive director of Friends of Browns Canyon and a retired Navy commander, said he was pleased to hear Bennet’s decision to cosponsor the bill.

“We’re pleased and honored to have Sen. Bennet on board with this important legislation, which not only protects one of Colorado’s world-class recreational destinations, but was built from the ground up by local people who do business, recreate and make their homes in this part of the state,” Baker said.

More whitewater coverage here.

Snowpack news (% of normal): South Platte still on top = 148%, Upper Colorado = 131%, Upper Rio Grande = 88%

Statewide Snow Water Equivalent as a percent of normal March 8, 2014 via the NRCS
Statewide Snow Water Equivalent as a percent of normal March 8, 2014 via the NRCS

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Snowpack accumulations rose even further above average in Colorado as a whole last month, but they continue to lag in the southwest part of the state.

The statewide snow water equivalent was at 118 percent of median Thursday, compared to 107 at the start of February, thanks to multiple storms, the Natural Resources Conservation Service says. The Upper Colorado River Basin was at 129 percent and the Gunnison Basin, 112 percent. The Laramie/North Platte and South Platte basins are even higher than the Upper Colorado, with the South Platte at 144 percent of median.

But southwest Colorado remains a different story, with the combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins at 95 percent of median and the upper Rio Grande at just 90 percent.

“It’s sort of been the story all season long so far,” said Mage Hultstrand, assistant snow survey supervisor in Colorado for the conservation service. “It seems like the storm track’s just been missing that area somewhat. They’ve gotten some additional snow, but not what they normally get.”

The good news for the southwest is that snowpack levels rose from Feb. 1 levels of just 82 percent for the Upper Rio Grande basin and 79 percent for the four other basins.

On a statewide basis, Colorado has received above-average precipitation for three months in a row, the conservation service says. The state usually reaches peak snow accumulation on April 9, and under current conditions only needs 8 percent of typical precipitation between now and then to reach that peak, Hultstrand said.

The Upper Colorado Basin already is an inch above the 15.5 inches of snow-water equivalent it reaches during its typical peak.

Natural Resouces Conservation Services says that while reservoir storage is still below average, at 89 percent, that’s much improved from the 67 percent at this time last year.

“With the current snowpack conditions and storage volumes, drought conditions in most basins should be alleviated and reservoir storage should improve this spring,” the agency said in a news release Thursday.

“Data collected during the recent snow surveys directly reflects what the state can expect for surface water supplies this coming spring and summer. The most recent streamflow forecasts continue to point toward above to well above normal volumes for this spring and summer in most of the major river basins in Colorado; the exceptions will be the Upper Rio Grande and southwest basins.”

From The Mountain Mail (J.D. Thomas):

Arkansas River Basin snowpack reached 109 percent of the median as of March 1, increasing from 100 percent in early February.

Statewide snowpack was 116 percent of median, and statewide precipitation totals for February reached 133 percent of average, said Phyllis Ann Philipps, Colorado state conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The NRCS report released Wednesday said “weather patterns favored the northern and central mountain ranges in Colorado.”

Snowpack exceeded the median in every basin except the Rio Grande, at 79 percent, and the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins, at 85 percent of median.

However, the combined San Juan basins saw a 3-percentage-point increase from last month and reached 103 percent of last year.

The highest amount of snowpack March 1 was 151 percent of median in the South Platte Basin.

Reservoir storage for the state decreased an average of 1 percent, the NRCS reported. However, storage in the Arkansas River Basin decreased 4 percent even though the snowpack increased.

Statewide reservoir storage dropped to 89 percent of average.

“The most recent streamflow forecasts continue to point toward above- to well-above-normal volumes for this spring and summer in most of the major river basins in Colorado; the exceptions will be the Upper Rio Grande and southwest basins,” the report said.

San Luis Valley: ‘We’re relying more and more on habitats that we know are artificially created and maintained’ — Michael Blenden

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Colorado’s effort to replenish its aquifers by cracking down on pumping groundwater threatens to leave the thousands of sandhill cranes that arrive here each February without the water they need.

“This certainly has the potential for changing the dynamics of what we have witnessed for the last 50 years,” said Michael Blenden, federal manager of the San Luis Valley complex of three national wildlife refuges and the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area.

The cranes will be fine this year, but rules are kicking in that would prevent federal wildlife managers from pumping the 2.67 billion gallons they typically draw to create artificial wetlands for migratory birds. Farmers also grow barley and lay it out to help sandhill cranes, which draw visitors from around the world.

“Drying up cranes, I don’t think that’s a realistic outcome,” Blenden said. “We certainly don’t want to go there. Our responsibility is the perpetuation of the migratory bird resource.”

The cranes — about 25,000 of them are amassing in the San Luis Valley this month — need the food and the protection the marsh provides. But state officials have been working for years to control overpumping of the groundwater and prioritize who gets scarce water in a semiarid region. They say the groundwater pumping must cease unless federal officials obtain rights to surface water and leave it in rivers to offset their tapping of aquifers. If a trade can’t be worked out, that could cost more than $1 million, Blenden said.

“Just like every other groundwater user, the refuges will have to remedy the injurious stream depletions that occur due to their groundwater use,” state natural resources spokesman Todd Hartman said.

State officials and refuge managers have discussed the impending requirements, which may also force tens of thousands of irrigated acres out of production. Farmers have formed cooperative districts to try to adapt.

Scientists believe sandhill cranes in lesser numbers probably have migrated through the San Luis Valley for thousands of years. A petroglyph on the west side of the valley, depicting what appears to be a crane, may be 3,000 years old, according to federal officials. The artificial wetlands has helped ensure the cranes’ survival and now draw 95 percent of the cranes across a six-state region, federal biologist Scott Miller said. Dried-up marshes would be less appealing and may not meet cranes’ need to gain strength for their flight to nesting areas in Wyoming and Idaho and breeding there, Miller said. Cranes roost at night in wetlands, sleeping while standing in water. Coyotes or other predators are hampered as sloshing sounds can alert cranes.

“We don’t want to put the state in a position of having some kind of confrontation with us. We are contributing to the groundwater problems, just as the agricultural community is,” Blenden said.

Yet climate change creates new challenges, and preserving wildlife is part of a national mission, he said.

“We’re relying more and more on habitats that we know are artificially created and maintained. We cannot just turn our backs, because things get a little rough, and let the cranes figure it out.”

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.