#Colorado river otters enjoying modest success

North American River Otter: Live in coastal estuaries, rivers and even mountain streams. Sightings of river otters in the wild are rare because they prefer uninhabited areas with clean, clear water where food is abundant. Photo credit South Carolina Aquarium.
North American River Otter: Live in coastal estuaries, rivers and even mountain streams. Sightings of river otters in the wild are rare because they prefer uninhabited areas with clean, clear water where food is abundant. Photo credit South Carolina Aquarium.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists say that, after completing the reintroduction of about 120 young male and female otters 25 years ago, otters are multiplying with a statewide population now numbering in the hundreds.

The recovery here, mirrored in other states that reintroduced otters decades ago, stands out in the struggle for wildlife survival because biologists consider otters a “sentinel species” that is highly sensitive to pollution. It shows how a relatively modest state effort to keep an imperiled species off the federal endangered species list — the U.S. ecological equivalent of an emergency room — can lead to a comeback.

State-run reintroduction “has made a significant contribution to the conservation of river otters throughout the state of Colorado,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Leslie Ellwood said. “We’re now seeing river otters in streams and lakes where they had not been seen for the past 100 years.”

Although Colorado officials could not produce current population survey data or a peer-reviewed study, and while otters still are classified as “threatened” in the state, CPW tables indicate otters exist in 38 of 64 counties.

This means habitat suitable to otters in Colorado is relatively healthy, said Reid DeWalt, assistant director of wildlife and natural resources for the state. “CPW is vested in the long-term sustainability and balance of wildlife for future generations.”


Otters eat practically any animal that moves in riparian corridors: fish, frogs, snakes, turtles, crayfish, birds, salamanders. They grow to be 3- to 4-feet long, with males weighing about 25 pounds and females about 18 pounds. When predators such as coyotes lurk, otters have the ability to chase them away. And they energetically chase one another, sliding crazily along muddy banks — activities biologists describe as pure play for fun.

The prospect of a widening recovery has emerged as a success at a time when conservationists warn that scores of other plant and animal species are vanishing…

Starting in 1976, Colorado wildlife crews reintroduced river otters at five sites: Denver Water’s Cheesman Reservoir, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Gunnison, Piedra and Dolores rivers. Similar efforts were happening elsewhere in the United States. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that more than 4,000 otters were reintroduced across 21 states.

Colorado kept up the reintroductions until 1991.

In 2003, members of the Colorado Wildlife Commission decided to down-list the status of the river otter to “threatened” from “endangered.” It’s still illegal to hunt them.

Colorado wildlife officials contend that the reintroduced otters are thriving with established populations around the Western Slope in waterways, including the Colorado, Green, Yampa, Dolores, Gunnison and San Miguel rivers, as well as tributaries in each basin.

Yet state monitoring is limited. CPW relies on Colorado residents to serve as eyes and ears — filling out and submitting forms giving details when they spot otters. Mink, beavers and muskrats share the same habitat as otters and, sometimes when seen swimming, are confused with otters.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, charged with enforcing the federal Endangered Species Act, welcome state efforts to head off crises, said Marjorie Nelson, the USFWS regional chief of ecological services.

Humpback chubs are making a comeback in the Little #ColoradoRiver

NPS and USFWS personnel use a seine net to trap humpback chubs in the Little Colorado River. Photo credit Mike Pillow (USFWS) via the Arizona Daily Sun.
NPS and USFWS personnel use a seine net to trap humpback chubs in the Little Colorado River. Photo credit Mike Pillow (USFWS) via the Arizona Daily Sun.

From the Arizona Daily Sun (Emery Cowan):

Thanks to fewer predators and more food at the upriver location, the transplanted fish have come to thrive compared to their downstream brethren, making for a conservation success story that just received national recognition.

The fish-moving process, called translocation, is headed up by a team from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with help from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service. The team received the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2016 Rachel Carson Award for Exemplary Scientific Accomplishment for its contribution to the recovery of the endangered humpback chub, a distinctive and well-known pillar of the Grand Canyon ecosystem…

Humpback chub congregate in the lower part of the Little Colorado, close to its confluence. Before translocations started the species hadn’t been found above a natural travertine dam 14 kilometers upriver. But that stretch of the river, above what’s called Chute Falls, has warmer water, abundant food sources like insects and the tiny speckled dace and far fewer predators, which for the chub include invasive trout and catfish. Like an in-stream fish hatchery, the area makes for an ideal natural rearing habitat that comes with less disease transmission and genetic challenges, said Randy Van Haverbeke, a senior fish biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service who is involved in the work. Seeing an opportunity to expand the chub’s range and establish another aggregation that could contribute to the population downriver, biologists started translocating humpback chub above Chute Falls in 2003 and now move about 300 baby fish annually, said Mike Pillow, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

More than a decade in, biologists have consistently measured increased growth and survival among the translocated chub compared to non-translocated chub, indicating promise for the conservation tactic to augment the species’ populations in Grand Canyon, Van Haverbeke said.

In the area above Chute Falls, biologists have recaptured an average of 24 percent of fish translocated the year before, Pillow said.

In the bigger picture, he said, the project’s goal is to build up humpback chub numbers to enable the eventual delisting of the species.

Going beyond the Little Colorado River, the translocation process has been replicated by officials at Grand Canyon National Park as well, where chub from the Colorado River were transported up Havasu and Shinumo creeks. The goal was the same: to establish new population groups of chub within the species’ ancestral habitat where they may be better able to survive. Doing so in more locations creates redundancy, so if something were ever to happen in the Little Colorado River “all our eggs aren’t in one basket,” Van Haverbeke said.

Biologists with the National Park Service have seen as much as a five to 10-fold increase in chub in the mainstem of the Colorado River below those two creeks, suggesting translocation is having a positive impact, he said.

Measurable impacts on total chub population numbers in the Little Colorado River are harder to determine because the population is bigger and the fish are affected by other factors like the temperature of water releases from Glen Canyon Dam, Pillow and Van Haverbeke said.

“But the bottom line is we have increased survival and growth rates compared to not translocating (the fish). Then you have to assume it’s a positive (impact),” Van Haverbeke said.

Also important to note is the fact that this is a feasible, doable conservation action proven to help the fish, as opposed to something much harder to influence like modifying dam operations, he said.

The process also involves relatively minimal human impact, Pillow said, instead helping Mother Nature with “little nudges.”

Humpback chub photo credit US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Humpback chub photo credit US Fish and Wildlife Service.

#ColoradoRiver Headwaters Project #COriver

Colorado River headwaters tributary in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.
Colorado River headwaters tributary in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.

Here’s a guest column from Paul Bruchez that is running in Steamboat Today:

A few years ago, I saw an opportunity to fix the irrigation problems while also improving river and wildlife habitat. My family’s ranch is in one of the most intact traditional agricultural communities remaining in Colorado. Like most ranchers, we’re independent folks — but in a pinch, we know we can count on each other.

Our neighbors came together and agreed on the need for action. Our group of 11 private ranches and the Bureau of Land Management, the irrigators of lands in the vicinity of Kremmling, received a couple of grants for a pilot project to restore a riffle/pool structure on a stretch of the river. It was an exciting start.

But I quickly realized that, given the scale of the problems, we needed to think bigger.

We worked with a variety of partners — Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, the Colorado Basin Roundtable, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Grand County government, Northern Water, Denver Water, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Upper Colorado River Alliance, the Colorado River District and other river stakeholders — to put together an ambitious proposal for restoring a significant stretch of the Upper Colorado River.

In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service recognized that big vision, awarding ILVK and our partners $7.75 million under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to improve irrigation systems and reverse the decline in water quality and fish habitat in the headwaters of the Colorado River.

This funding is an amazing win for all Coloradans, because a healthy Colorado River sustains all our lives.

The Colorado River Headwaters Project will install several innovative instream structures designed to improve water levels for irrigation, while enhancing critical river habitat by rebuilding riffles and pool structure. A crucial piece will be restoring approximately one mile of the Colorado River’s former channel, currently inundated by Windy Gap Reservoir. This ambitious bypass project will reconnect the river — for the first time in decades — and improve river habitat in the headwaters area.

When fully implemented, the Headwaters Project will directly benefit more than 30 miles of the Colorado River and 4,500 acres of irrigated lands and make available up to 11,000 acre-feet of water to improve the river during low-flow conditions.

What have I learned from this project? That the interests of agriculture producers can align with the interests of conservation groups, state agencies, water providers and other river users. It’s not just the waters of the Colorado River that are connected — so are the people who depend on it.

The Colorado River flows through all of our lives. By working together, we can find smart, creative solutions that keep the Colorado healthy and working for all of us.

Paul Bruchez is a rancher who lives near Kremling.

@COParksWildlife: Small Colorado native fish no longer “Federally Endangered” candidate

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

The Arkansas darter is a two-and-a-half inch native perch found throughout southeastern Colorado, Kansas and a few other states. On Oct. 6, 2016, after a 12-month finding, these fish were official categorized as “ not warranted” for federal listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, bringing some relief to more than 40 years of concern for the species.

Arkansas darter were listed as threatened at the state level by Colorado Parks and Wildlife in 1975, and through a collaborative effort with FWS and other state wildlife management agencies, were designated a federal candidate species in 1991. Candidate species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, are described as “having sufficient concern for their biological status but for which development of a proposed listing regulation is precluded by other higher priority listings.”

In 1994 (with recent updates) these status listings prompted CPW biologists to partner with the FWS and other wildlife agencies to develop an individual recovery plan for the species. The plan included ramping up conservation efforts, such as work with private landowners, habitat conservation, hatchery propagation, reintroduction and re-establishment of populations, and long term monitoring and research, among other actions.

“This ‘not warranted’ decision is a testament to the dedication and effort of many CPW staff over many years,” said Harry Crockett, CPW Native Aquatic Species Coordinator.

The decision was based on a recent status assessment of the Arkansas darter throughout its range in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Representative species biologists from each state, FWS biologists, as well as climate and hydrology scientists worked throughout 2014 and 2015 on assessing the species’ health, distribution and potential future.

“The Species Status Assessment Report for the Arkansas darter, and the FWS’s resulting 12-month finding was a superb collaboration between the affected states and the FWS,” said Vernon Tabor, Species Biologist, FWS; Arkansas darter assessment lead. “While the finding was solely FWS responsibility, we needed the excellent data, coordination and expertise we found in our state partners, including Colorado Parks and Wildlife. This allowed us to make our decision based on the most sound and recent science available.”

Threats to Arkansas darters still persist, as illustrated by their listing as a Tier One species in CPW’s 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan.

“Probably our greatest concern for the long term stability of Arkansas darters is specifically related to the future of water, especially spring water and headwater reaches, that provide good habitat on the plains of the Arkansas River Basin,” said Paul Foutz, Native Aquatic Species Biologist – CPW Southeast Region.

The darter occupy cool, clear spring-fed streams and seeps with abundant vegetation and feed primarily on invertebrates. The fish are found throughout the Arkansas River Basin, however populations are now typically isolated from one another. These populations are primarily found in the Big Sandy Creek, Chico Creek, Fountain Creek, and Rush Creek drainages, as well as several drainages north and east of Lamar, Colorado.

Historical records of Arkansas darters date back to 1889, but records were scant until a 1979-1981 CPW native fishes inventory of the Arkansas River Basin identified a far more widespread distribution of the species.

CPW will continue to make recovery and conservation of Arkansas darters a high priority.

“CPW is fully committed to continuing work to ensure that the species persists and fulfills its important niche in a fundamentally water-scarce region which is likely to become drier in the future. However, we, along with our partner agencies throughout the species’ range, can all be proud to have achieved the level of security and stability for the species that this ‘not warranted’ decision reflects,” said Crockett.

#RioGrande: Tackling The Mosaic Puzzle of a Fragile Ecosystem — Water Deeply

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

Here’s an interview with Luzma Nava from Matt Weiser and Water Deeply. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

IF THERE’S EVER been a river at the mercy of international politics, it would have to be the Rio Grande.

The river begins in southern Colorado, flows the length of New Mexico, then forms the entirety of the border between Texas and Mexico. As such, the Rio Grande (known as the Rio Bravo in Mexico) is not only the subject of water battles but also disputes involving public access, legitimate international trade, illegal drug trafficking and, of course, illegal immigration…

Several treaties govern the flow of water in the Rio Grande, as well as trade and travel across the international border. Because of intense water development and diversion, parts of the river are completely dry and fishless for hundreds of miles during much of the year. The treaties ensure that everyone who is entitled to water gets their share, on both sides of the border.

Forgotten in all this is what’s best for the river itself – its wildlife and its habitats – and for the people who simply want to enjoy a wet river. Luzma Nava recently explored this problem in a study published in the journal, Water. The study was completed while Nava was a postdoctoral fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, an independent think-tank based outside Vienna, Austria.

Nava, a native of Guanajuato, Mexico, is now completing a doctoral degree in international studies at Laval University in Quebec. For the Rio Grande study, Nava conducted more than 70 interviews with people involved in Rio Grande water management, on both sides of the border, and concluded that it is possible to amend the Rio Grande treaties to free up water for environmental purposes. Nava spoke recently with Water Deeply about her work…

Water Deeply: What is the condition of the river today?

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

Nava: If I have to answer in one word, I would say fragile. The main issue is the lack of water. Also the water quality is in danger. And when water quality of the river is not good enough, then we have ecological issues as a consequence.

The fact we don’t have enough water translates into other issues that depend on the quantity of water. There is a loss of habitat, water quality degradation, pollution, salinization, sedimentation. The community of fish is very, very low. In terms of water quality, the more fish we find in the river, the better the quality of the water. But in the case of the Rio Grande, it doesn’t work like that because there are no fish in the river. They have disappeared because there is not enough water.

#coleg: @CWCB_DNR hopes to score $25 million for watershed plans @COWaterPlan

Yampa River
Yampa River

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

A Colorado Water Conservation Board proposal, sent to state lawmakers last week, recommends the stream-saving action to meet state environmental and economic goals. It remains unclear who would enforce the community watershed plans.

But there’s little doubt streams statewide are strained by thirsts of a growing population expected to double by 2060, according to state officials. And a Denver Post look at the latest water quality data found that 12,975 miles of streams across Colorado (14 percent of all stream miles) are classified as “impaired” with pollutants exceeding limits set by state regulators.

Creating local watershed plans to save streams is essential, said James Eklund, the CWCB director and architect of the year-old Colorado Water Plan. Eklund pointed to low-snow winters and drought in California’s Sierra Nevada, where 2015 snowpack at 5 percent of average forced a declaration of a state of emergency requiring 25 cuts in urban water use.

“When our Colorado mountain snowpack drops below 60 percent of average, we get nervous. If it happens in the Sierras, it can happen in the Rockies,” he said. “We need to protect certain streams before a crisis. We have got to get on this quickly.”

No single agency oversees waterway health. State natural resources officials monitor flow levels in streams and rivers. They run a program aimed at ensuring sufficient “in-stream flow” so that, even during drought, streams don’t die.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sets standards on maximum levels of pollutants that people and companies are allowed to discharge into waterways. In 2015, only 51.6 percent total stream and river miles in Colorado met quality standards, and 30.1 percent of lake surface acres met standards, according to a CDPHE planning document.

“If stream flows are low, there is less dilution in the stream to handle the addition of pollutants through permitted discharges,” CDPHE water quality director Pat Pfaltzgraff said in responses sent by agency spokesman Mark Salley.

Yet CDPHE officials do not make recommendations to natural resources officials about water flows necessary to improve stream health.

The health department has made separate “watershed plans.” CDPHE officials “are considering broadening the division’s watershed plans to include ecosystem health that might be more consistent with stream management plans.”

Pfaltzgraff declined to discuss stream health…

CWCB chairman Russ George supported the push to create local watershed plans, to include detailed maps covering every stream.

“Every stream and tributary needs to be inventoried. … It should have been done a long time ago,” George said in an interview last week.

“We have kind of hit the population and demand place where we have to do it. We didn’t have to do it for the first part of history because the population was small and there wasn’t the impact of all the issues we are getting into now,” he said.

The CWCB voted unanimously last month to ask lawmakers to approve $5 million a year for up to five years to launch local stream planning.

Basin roundtable boundaries
Basin roundtable boundaries

The plans are to be developed within the eight river basin “roundtable” forums that Colorado has relied on for addressing water challenges. These groups draw in residents with interests in stream health who helped hash out the Colorado Water Plan, which was finalized last year and calls for statewide cuts in per person water use by about 1 percent a year.

Conditions along Colorado streams vary, said Bart Miller, healthy rivers program director for Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates. “There are plenty of streams that have problems.”

While state natural resources officials run the program aimed at keeping at least some water in heavily tapped streams, survival in a competitive environment is complex. Leaving water in streams for environmental purposes often depends on timing, when the mountain snowpack that serves as a time-release water tower for the West melts, the amount of snowpack, and needs of cities, pastures and farms.

Collaborative local forums to find flexibility to revive streams “is a great approach.” However, state officials eventually may have to play a central role converting plans into action, Miller said.

“The state should help both in funding the planning but also in implementing the plans,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do. This matters because this is about ‘the Colorado brand.’ Everyone depends on healthy rivers.”

The roundtable forums in communities draw in diverse stakeholders from cattlemen to anglers.

Irrigators and other water users west of Aspen already have created a “stream management plan,” for the Crystal River, seen as a model local effort. Their planning included an assessment of watershed health that found significant degradation above the confluence with the Roaring Fork River. They set a goal of reducing the estimated 433 cubic feet per second of water diverted from the river by adding 10 to 25 cfs during dry times. They’re developing “nondiversion agreements” that would pay irrigators to reduce water use when possible without hurting agriculture, combined with improving ditches and installation of sprinkler systems designed to apply water to crops more efficiently.

Enforcement of plans hasn’t been decided. “We’d like to see more enforcement” of measures to improve stream health, Rocky Mountain Sierra Club director Jim Alexee said. “We definitely think there’s room to do more. We also want to be respectful of the governor’s watershed process.”

Colorado has no history of relying on a central agency to enforce water and land use, CWCB chairman George pointed out.

“When you have a system designed to have everybody at the table, what you’re doing is recognizing there is a finite resource that is shared by everybody. And impacts are shared by everybody statewide. In order to keep from having some force dominate in ways that would not account for all statewide impacts, you need to diffuse the conversation into all areas. That is what roundtables do,” he said.

“When you do that, you’re going to get a better statewide result over time. … It is a process that is designed to get as many interests into the decision-making as you can. … It gets harder, of course, as the supply-demand makes pinches. For the rest of our lives, it is going to be that way.”

Platte River: Protected species make water projects especially important — The Kearney Hub

The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.
The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.

From The Kearney Hub (Lori Potter):

Nebraska has a unique role among the four partners in the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, according to Nebraska Department of Natural Resources Director Jeff Fassett.

“All the (protected) species and all the habitat are in Nebraska,” he said.

The Central Platte Valley is the target area for least terns, piping plovers and whooping cranes, while pallid sturgeon are in the Lower Platte River.

All the water options for a proposed program extension, which will focus on reducing river depletions by another 40,000 [acre-feet] or more, are in Nebraska to be as close as possible to the target habitat.

Fassett said that with a major reservoir project now off the table, new projects will include groundwater recharge, facilities to hold water for retimed releases and water leasing.

He noted Tuesday at the annual convention of the Nebraska State Irrigation and Nebraska Water Resources associations that initial water projects were completed by all three states toward meeting the program’s first-increment goal to reduce river depletions by 130,000-150,000 [acre-feet].

However, more recent projects and those being considered for the future are only in Nebraska. “There is hydrologic logic about that,” Fassett said, because projects hundreds of miles from the target habitat are not as effective.

Nebraska’s benefits include regulatory stability the program provides for the Platte Basin. Projects in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming that must comply with the federal Endangered Species Act can do so through the program instead of individually, he said.

Another issue for Nebraska is its own demands to enhance water in the river. Fassett said state laws for the overappropriated area of the Platte Basin west of Elm Creek require “moving the train backward” to mitigate new water uses since 2007.