CPW: Native cutthroat trout reintroduction program continues in Southwest Colorado

Colorado Parks and Wildlife staffers prepare native Colorado River cutthroat trout for stocking north of Durango on July 27, 2017.

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

Restoration of native trout reached another milestone on July 27 when 3,000 Colorado River cutthroat trout were stocked in streams about 30 miles north of Durango by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The restoration project is being done in the Hermosa Creek drainage and is a joint project of CPW and the San Juan National Forest, with assistance from Trout Unlimited. So far, restoration work has been completed on three phases of the project which includes sections of the main stem of Hermosa Creek and East Hermosa Creek. One more phase remains that will take two more years to complete.

Last week about 50 volunteers helped to distribute the five-inch fish in about three miles of water in East Hermosa Creek, Relay Creek and Sig Creek.

“Restoring native species is a high priority for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Hermosa Creek drainage is an ideal location for pure Colorado River cutthroat trout,” said Jim White, CPW aquatic biologist in Durango who has coordinated the projects. “There are numerous tributaries streams that provide a variety of habitats and safe havens for populations in case of catastrophic events, such as fire, drought or disease.”

To restore native fish, the U.S. Forest Service has built two barriers on the creeks which block the passage of non-native rainbow and brook trout. Native cutthroats cannot compete with those fish in a stream. Following construction of the barriers, CPW treated the water to kill all fish in the stream. Generally, it takes two years for biologists to confirm that all fish have been eliminated. After that, native fish can be restocked.

Besides building the barriers, the Forest Service has also made improvements along the streams to improve fish habitat.

Fish are doing well on the section completed five years ago on Hermosa Creek, White said. A recent survey showed that more than 400 fish per mile now inhabit the creek.

“We know the fish are reproducing in that section and we are very pleased with what we’re seeing,” White said.

The last phase of the project will connect East Hermosa Creek with the main stem. The Forest Service is currently building another barrier just below the confluence of the two streams; treating the water to eliminate all fish will be done in 2018 and 2019. By 2020, if all goes as planned, nearly 25 miles of stream in the Hermosa Creek drainage will be home to the native trout.

Hermosa Creek is an excellent spot for anglers to get off the beaten path for catch-and-release-fishing. Anglers are reminded that fishing in this area is by fly and lure only, and that all cutthroat trout caught in the area must be returned to the water immediately.

To learn more about CPW’s work to restore native trout throughout the state, go to: http://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/ResearchCutthroatTrout.aspx.

Hermosa Creek cutthroat trout restoration update

Hermosa Park

Update: Here’s a photo gallery from The Durango Herald.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The effort to restore Colorado River cutthroat trout in Hermosa Creek dates back 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 non-native 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.

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 non-native 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, likely because of the fact many projects are located on federal lands managed by agencies open to large-scale 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…

Hermosa project close to completion
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.”

Protecting the cutthroat
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 catch-and-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…

The quest to set right altered habitats continues to have strong cultural and ecological justifications, said Noah Greenwald of the Centers for Biological Diversity.

“We’re taking away what makes places like Colorado unique and special,” he said. “And we’re likely impacting other species when we replace a native with a non-native. It’s part of this larger extinction crisis.”

The Hermosa Creek restoration project is a coordinated effort between the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, as well as Trout Unlimited, which in total have spent more than a $1 million, Kampf said.

It will take a few more years for the waters upstream of the forthcoming barrier to carry only cutthroats, as non-natives still need to be removed, but Kampf said it will be worth the wait.

From The Durango Herald editorial board:

As local anglers, conservationists and wildlife managers get ready to celebrate another milestone in the restoration of Colorado River cutthroat trout to the upper reaches of Hermosa Creek, it is easy to forget that the effort, which dates back to the early 1990s, has its detractors.

Some local residents, and many long-time summer visitors to the popular area tucked behind Purgatory, think all the fuss over the fish – one of three native Colorado subspecies of trout named for the distinctive crimson slashes found on each side of the lower jaw – has ruined a fine local fishing hole.

From a short-term point of view, they have a point. The periodic poisoning of the creek to remove non-native trout, the building of barriers to keep non-natives downstream, the stocking of cutthroats and the rules against taking them for the frying pan have sent those seeking a stringer of fish further downstream, or elsewhere.

In 1992, the Colorado Division of Wildlife applied rotenone above the waterfall on the East Fork; not long after, Colorado River cutthroat were planted in the stream and the fish, estimated to occupy less than 15 percent of its original range on the tributaries of the Green and Colorado rivers, had a toehold in Hermosa headwaters once again.

It was an important step in the effort to keep the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the fish as an endangered species, and mirrored similar restoration efforts on the fish’s native range in Utah and Wyoming.

Since then, barriers have been built and the process repeated on the main stem upstream of Hotel Draw. With the pending completion this summer of a barrier at the confluence of the East Fork and the main stem, the native-cutthroat-only stretch will soon comprise the largest continuous stretch of Colorado River cutthroat habitat in the state.

It has been an impressive effort, and like its supporters, we are confident of its future success. Those who remain unimpressed may benefit from a history lesson:

The same mining and population boom that decimated the cutthroat nearly extirpated Colorado’s elk. In 1912, elk from Wyoming were reintroduced to the state in the same Hermosa Creek drainage. The area remains, as the Denver Post noted in an article three years ago, “a hunter’s paradise, where trophy elk still die of old age.”

That story, and the Hermosa area’s more recent protected status, bode well for another rebounding native.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Hermosa Trail to be Impacted by Construction of Fish Barrier

Proposed Hermosa Creek watershed protection area via The Durango Herald

Here’s the release from the San Juan National Forest:

Construction activities will begin in the Hermosa Creek Special Management Area on Monday, July 10, 2017 to erect a fish-migration barrier on Hermosa Creek as part of the ongoing Colorado River Cutthroat Trout Reintroduction Project. Trail users and visitors to the area should expect to encounter delays and closures until October 1, 2017. The barrier is being installed on the main stem of Hermosa Creek downstream of its confluence with the East Fork of Hermosa Creek. About one-half mile of the Hermosa Creek Trail from its northern trailhead must be widened to allow heavy equipment to access the construction site. The trail widening is temporary and will be rehabilitated to the extent possible. Tree removal is expected to be minimal.

Throughout the construction project, trail users traveling in both directions may encounter temporary delays of up to one hour. Short-term closures lasting up to a full day are also possible, especially when heavy equipment is being moved in and out of the area. No more than four days of closures are expected during the three-month project, but construction schedules are subject to changing conditions. Public notices will be posted when trail closures are expected. The project is not expected to affect fishing, because flows will be bypassed above the construction site; however, some sedimentation is expected downstream. The barrier represents the final and most important phase of the Hermosa Creek Colorado River Cutthroat Trout Reintroduction Project, which began almost 30 years ago. The goal is to protect native cutthroat trout above the barrier from non-native fish located downstream.

For more information, please contact the Columbine Ranger District at 970 884-2512 or Clay Kampf at 970-884-1403.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Hermosa Creek: Improved cutthroat trout habitat

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

From The Durango Herald (Pam Bond):

The San Juan National Forest hired Durango contractors G2 and AJ Construction to complete 500 feet of streambank stabilization in preparation for reintroduction of native Colorado River cutthroat on a stretch of the creek where non-native fish have been removed.

“It’s important to conduct these operations at times when we have low flows and no fish,” said Clay Kampf, fisheries biologist for the San Juan National Forest Columbine District. “We started at the headwaters of each tributary and worked our way downstream to make sure there were always other fishing opportunities.”

Under the direction of Kampf, Grady James, equipment operator with AJ Construction, spent September maneuvering rocks and logs into place to reinforce streambanks and create small waterfalls and deep pools. The goals were clean water and a diversity of habitat for all seasons.

“When the creek takes a corner, and an unstable bank erodes, sediment washes into the water and impacts the ability of fish to survive in many ways,” Kampf said. “Corners are high-stress points so we place large rocks there to protect the banks during higher flows.”

This fall’s water level was only about three to five cubic feet per second, which offered an opportune time to conduct improvements, but the project was designed for a wide diversity of flows. While spring flows of up to 40 to 50 cfs in the East Fork of Hermosa Creek threaten habitat by eroding the banks, very low flows in winter also endanger the fish.

“Keeping water moving in winter keeps it from freezing, which has been the biggest limiting factor for long-term cutthroat survival,” Kampf said. “Constricting the channel and creating small pour-overs increase the winter flow levels.”

Buried logs are effective for stabilizing banks where the stream splits and creates shallow stretches that offer spawning habitat in the spring. But where the creek had divided into multiple channels, rocks were used to divert water back into the main channel to keep flows steady.

Encouraging vegetation is also important for stream stabilization. When the heavy equipment scooped up grass and forbs to make way for placement of rocks and logs, its giant claw replanted the native vegetation with the skill of a seasoned gardener.

“We retain any disturbed vegetation and replant it nearby,” Kampf said. “We avoid disturbing any established willows, which in this stretch are about five to 10 years old.”

North American beaver (Castor canadensis)
North American beaver (Castor canadensis)

Kampf also hopes nature’s furry engineers will return to the area and help with recovery.

“There were beavers, but they moved upstream and downstream during disturbance from the project,” Kampf said. “If the beavers return and flood the area, they will create additional overwintering and larger pools for the cutthroat.”

The Forest Service will closely monitor the project area for three years, keeping an eye out for noxious weeds. Volunteers with the Durango Chapter of Trout Unlimited will help the agency later this fall to plant additional native grass and forb seeds and alder/willow cuttings along the banks to further revegetate the area.

“Our goals are to improve water quality and mimic natural features that will aid in the conservation of the Colorado River cutthroat, which will, in turn, improve recreational fishing,” Kampf said.

Proposed Hermosa Creek watershed protection area via The Durango Herald
Proposed Hermosa Creek watershed protection area via The Durango Herald

CPW: Hermosa Creek native cutthroat restoration project moving along nicely

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

The multi-year project to restore native Colorado River cutthroat trout to more than 20 miles of the Hermosa Creek watershed is continuing this summer. The project is a cooperative effort of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service and Trout Unlimited.

The Hermosa Creek project is one of the largest native trout restoration project ever done in the state. The work is critical for bringing this species back to western Colorado.

Located about 30 miles north of Durango, wildlife biologists identified the Hermosa Creek area as a prime spot for restoration more than 20 years ago. The first project was completed on the upper East Fork of Hermosa Creek in 1992. Cutthroat trout now thrive in that section. A second part of the project was completed in 2013 on the main stem of Hermosa Creek above Hotel Draw; and the native trout are thriving in that section of water.

All the projects include construction of rock barriers that prevent non-native trout from migrating into the restored sections of stream. Agency officials hope that the entire project will be completed by 2018.

On Aug. 4-5, crews will apply an organic piscicide to a 2-mile long section of East Hermosa Creek below Sig Creek Falls to just above the confluence with the main stem of Hermosa Creek. The piscicide, Rotenone, will eliminate non-native fish species—primarily brook trout. Rotenone has been used for years throughout the world for aquatic management projects because it breaks down quickly in the environment and poses no threat to terrestrial wildlife or humans. CPW biologists also use a neutralizing agent just below the treatment area to prevent any fish kills downstream.

Short sections of Relay Creek and Sig Creek above will also be treated.

The work area will be closed to the public during the operation. An administrative campsite will be reserved for use by CPW and USFS employees during the treatment work. Signs are posted in the closed areas and the public is asked to observe the closure.

Visitors below the treatment area might see rust-colored water–-that is the color of the neutralizing agent. Anglers will still have full access to Hermosa Creek and the upper section of East Hermosa Creek. Any cutthroat trout caught must be returned to the water.

Because of the complexity of the habitat along the East Fork, the section will most likely be treated again next summer to assure elimination of non-native fish. If all goes as planned, native cutthroats will be stocked into the stream late next summer.

While the project is scheduled for the first week of August, project managers will be keeping an eye on the weather as recent rains have swelled the creeks in the area. If the water is running too high, the project could be delayed until next summer.

The Hermosa Creek project is one of the most important native cutthroat trout restoration endeavors in Colorado. After completion of the lower East Fork section, more work will be done in the coming years on the main branch of Hermosa Creek. The end-point of the effort will be just below the confluence of the East Fork and Hermosa Creek.

“This project is especially important because it connects several streams in a large, complex watershed,” said Jim White, aquatic biologist for CPW in the Four Corners area. “The connectivity provides what biologists call ‘resiliency’ to the system. There are more stream miles available to the fish which allows for more genetic exchange. It also makes the fish less susceptible to disease and to large sedimentation events such as fires, mudslides or avalanches.”

Every year Colorado Parks and Wildlife deploys significant resources for native trout restoration efforts. Colorado’s native trout include: the Colorado River cutthroat trout; the Rio Grande cutthroat trout; and the Greenback cutthroat trout.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.

Hermosa Creek in southwest Colorado gains protection — The Denver Post


From The Denver Post (Mark Matthews):

In a win for both conservationists and snowmobile riders, more than 100,000 acres of wilderness in southwest Colorado soon will gain an extra layer of protection under legislation that passed the U.S. Senate on Friday.

The safeguards for the Hermosa Creek area, near Durango, were included as part of a broad defense bill that sailed through the Senate by an 89-11 vote. The measure now heads to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.

“The cooperation, compromise and hard work put into this bill over a number of years by a diverse group of Coloradans should serve as a model for Washington,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said in a statement.

Its passage caps the end of a legislative journey begun years ago when community leaders near Durango began debating how best to protect the Hermosa Creek area while allowing its use by backpackers, anglers and snowmobile riders.

That debate led to a compromise land-use proposal that became the basis of federal legislation introduced last year by Bennet and fellow lawmakers U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.

Its prospects of becoming law looked good until September, when Tipton sought to amend the legislation as it moved through the House. Broadly, the changes he supported would have “locked in” snowmobile trails in the Molas Pass area of Hermosa Creek while raising the possibility of widespread mining throughout the region.

Tipton said he backed the revisions to help local business. But the eleventh-hour changes threatened to sink the legislation, as they came only a few weeks before lawmakers were to conclude their business for the 113th session of Congress.

The move triggered another round of negotiation between Bennet and Tipton, who ultimately agreed to new language that restricted mining in nearly all of the new preserve while providing a small amount of flexibility in the routing of snowmobile trails.

“The people of southwest Colorado who have dedicated so much time and effort as a community to help craft and support this legislation that will protect the Hermosa Creek Watershed and the multiple uses of that land have reason to celebrate today,” Tipton said in a statement.

An aide to Bennet said the legislation would take effect as soon as Obama signs the bill.

As written, it sets aside about 38,000 acres in the Hermosa Creek watershed as wilderness — a designation that prohibits roads, mining and mechanized vehicles — and transforms another 70,650 acres into a “special management area” that would support activities from ATV riding to “selective timber harvesting,” according to a synopsis of the bill.

Mining would be allowed on roughly 2,400 acres of the new preserve.

Here’s the release from Conservation Colorado:

Conservation Colorado Wilderness Advocate, Scott Braden, released the following statement on Congress passing the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which now heads to President Obama’s desk to be signed into law:

“Today is an historic and celebratory day for Colorado. Thanks to the diligent work of U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, U.S. Representative Scott Tipton, and local stakeholders in southwest Colorado, we are poised to add 108,000 acres of protected lands, including 37,236 acres of new wilderness, to the Hermosa Creek Watershed near Durango. This stunning area will now be protected to continue providing vital wildlife habitat, unparalleled recreation opportunities, and clean water for the region for generations to come.

Conservation Colorado has partnered with a wide array of diverse stakeholders in southwestern Colorado to promote protections for Hermosa Creek, and today those efforts, and the efforts of so many of our partners and friends, have paid off. It is refreshing to see Congress acting in bipartisan fashion to protect public lands that are crucial to our local economy, environment, and our quality of life. While not every public lands portion of the National Defense Authorization Act is a win for the environment, designating 250,000 acres of new wilderness across the country breaks a long drought in Congressional land protection. We sincerely thank Rep. Tipton and Sen. Bennet, for honoring the community consensus spirit of the Hermosa Creek effort and protecting an important part of Southwest Colorado for current and future generations to enjoy.”

More Hermosa Creek coverage here and here.

Defense act includes Hermosa bill: Proponents see this as good — The Durango Herald


From The Durango Herald (John Peel):

The Hermosa Creek wilderness bill has been included in the National Defense Authorization Act, again raising hopes among supporters that Congress will pass the bill before the session ends.

The defense act is one of the few remaining bills Congress is expected to debate this year.

“We are one step closer to a big victory for folks in Southwest Colorado who have worked together to get this done,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, said in a news release Wednesday. “The Hermosa Creek watershed is one of our state’s treasures and deserves protection.”

The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act would grant protective status to more than 100,000 acres north-northwest of Durango.

Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator with Trout Unlimited and a key proponent of the plan, said Wednesday afternoon that “it’s a great sign.”

He said, however, “Until the votes are cast we can’t count on anything.”

The Associated Press reported that quick passage of the defense bill hit a snag Wednesday over public lands, dividing Senate Republicans.

The $585 billion measure authorizing funds for the military includes several bills to expand wilderness areas in the West and expand the program streamlining natural-gas and oil permits.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, objected to their inclusion and promised to block any attempt to quickly finish the bill next week in the final days of the lame-duck session, the AP reported.

“A bill that defines the needs of our nation’s defense is hardly the proper place to trample on private property rights,” Coburn wrote in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. “Nor is it the place to restrict access to hunting, fishing and other recreational opportunities on massive swaths of taxpayer-supported lands.”

More Hermosa Creek coverage here.