@USBR Releases Draft Environmental Documents for Platte River Recovery Extension

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Brock Merrill):

The Bureau of Reclamation has released the Final Environmental and Biological Assessment (EA) and signed the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, Proposed First Increment Extension. Reclamation, working with the states of Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska, water users, and environmental and conservation organizations, proposes to extend the First Increment of the basin-wide, cooperative Recovery Implementation Program by 13 years. Reclamation participates in the Program to meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act.

The purpose of this action is to continue implementing Program projects in order to accomplish the following:

  • Reduce flow shortages in the Platte River aimed at conforming with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service target flows
  • Continue land management activities necessary to provide habitat for target threatened and endangered species
  • Continue integrated monitoring, research, and adaptive management, in order to assess the progress of the Program and inform future management decisions
  • The final EA and FONSI evaluates and discloses the potential impacts of the proposed 13 year extension of the Program’s First Increment. The final EA and FONSI does not represent the final decision of the Secretary of the Interior, in cooperation with the Governors of the states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, to extend the Program. The final EA and FONSI informs the Secretary that the potential impacts of the proposed extension do not warrant the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement. The formal decision by the Secretary regarding whether or not to extend the Program in cooperation with the Governors will occur at a later date.

    The final EA and FONSI are available for viewing at http://www.usbr.gov/gp/nepa/platte_river/index.html. For additional information or to receive a printed copy of the EA or Draft FONSI, please contact Brock Merrill at 307-532-1093 or bemerrill@usbr.gov.

    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.

    Razorback suckers are hanging on in the San Juan River

    From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists counted 50 yearling razorbacks during a recent survey in the upper Colorado River Basin — the result of water releases in 2016 and 2017 from the Navajo Reservoir aimed at helping the fish, agency officials said this week.

    Federal operators of the reservoir let out 5,000 cubic feet of water per second for 50 days, more than doubling regular flows in the San Juan River. This increased flow created nursery pools, the habitat razorbacks and three other endangered native fish need to spawn and survive.

    Saving razorbacks and other fish “is going to be totally dependent ” on putting more water into rivers, said Tom Chart, director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a 25-year, $360 million government-run rescue effort.

    “We’re not going to be able to restore the natural hydrological conditions. We understand that,” Chart said. “But we can recreate conditions that help young fish much more regularly.”

    Yet the intensifying climate shift toward heat and aridity in Southwestern states, combined with population growth, constrains biologists’ push to put more water into rivers for environmental purposes. No water could be released this year from the Navajo Reservoir, which straddles Colorado and New Mexico and holds 1.7 million acre-feet, Bureau of Reclamation engineer Susan Behery said. Probably none will be spared next year, either, because water managers are prioritizing storage after a near-record low snow year left the reservoir half full.

    Raising, stocking razorbacks

    For more than 30 years, federal biologists responsible for emergency rescues of endangered species have relied on raising razorbacks in hatcheries and copiously stocking them into Colorado River tributaries. Razorbacks evolved in wild free-flowing rivers, enduring for millions of years, until widespread dams and diversions reduced and regularized nature’s fluctuating flows. The razorback had nearly blinked out by 1980 with only 100 survivors — weakened by the disruption of flows and attacked by non-native predators such as bass, walleye and pike that state wildlife agencies have introduced for recreational sport fishing…

    Federal survey crews counted the 50 yearling razorbacks along the San Juan River downriver from the Navajo Reservoir. That’s the most fish counted since the surveys began two decades ago. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists calculated that this many yearlings could mean there are thousands of razorbacks along a 180-mile stretch of the river before it reaches Lake Powell.

    Navajo tribal biologists have embraced the effort to save razorbacks and other imperiled native fish. A Navajo team this year helped move 300 razorbacks over a barrier for spawning while weeding out non-native predators.

    “We are trying to preserve the razorback for our future generations,” said Navajo fish biologist Jerrod Bowman. “So that our kids can see razorbacks. … Our numbers are really looking great.”

    “Far from the self-sustaining populations”

    The problem with officially upgrading the status of fish, Bowman said, is that just the presence of yearlings may not establish that a species has become self-sustaining as required. Razorbacks usually don’t reproduce until they’re at least 2 years old. Adults can live up to 40 years.

    Under President Donald Trump, federal wildlife officials have faced pressure to upgrade and de-list endangered species when scientists still aren’t certain about survival, said ecologist Taylor McKinnon, a public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.

    #ColoradoRiver: The Humpback Chub and Razorback Sucker, are making a comeback #COriver

    From WesternSlopeNow.com (Colette Bordelon):

    Our local Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office said they release around 20,000 endangered fish from the hatchery every year. “We’re the ones who have almost taken them out, and I feel like it’s our job to recover them, and so that’s why I do what I do,” said Dale Ryden, a project leader at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.

    Those with the local office also said several factors made the fish endangered in the first place, including a lack of water and nonnative fish, as well as barriers like dams and reservoirs. Right now, the Humpback Chub, Bonytail, Colorado Pikeminnow, and Razorback Sucker are all listed as endangered species’. “Fish and Wildlife service established the Endangered Species Act back in 1973, and two of our species were immediately on the list: Humpback Chub and Razorback Sucker,” said Tom Chart, the program director for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

    Those two species, the Humpback Chub and Razorback Sucker, are making a comeback. The recent proposal by scientists with the Fish and Wildlife Service that suggested moving them from endangered to threatened would require the public’s comments in the future. “I don’t know that they would be possibly downlisted if it wouldn’t have been for the Endangered Species Act years ago,” said Mike Gross, a fish culturist at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.

    The latest E-Newsletter is hot off the presses from the Hutchins Water Center

    What’s for breakfast, in the Grand. Photo: via Aspen Journalism

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    GRAND CANYON ENVIRONMENT

    This in-depth feature from the Arizona Republic reviews how dams and water management have thoroughly altered the environment in the Grand Canyon, and how some of those alterations could now be, paradoxically, protecting native fish.

    First efforts to revive populations of #Colorado’s state fish seemed fruitless. Then the #greenback cutthroat trout surprised everyone — again — @ColoradoSun

    Greenback cutthroat trout photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    From The Colorado Sun (Jesse Paul):

    The species — previously considered extinct — is thriving in Herman Gulch, off Interstate 70, after initial stocking attempts now appear to be successful

    Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists first tried to reproduce and reintroduce the greenback cutthroat trout into a stream, not far from Interstate 70 and the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel, in the summer of 2016.

    When they returned the next summer, the results were grim. Researchers examining the ribbon of stream that winds down Herman Gulch found that none of the thousands of inch-long swimmers that were hauled up a steep trail by volunteers and placed in the waterway had survived.

    But as history has shown, there’s never really an end to the story of the ancient, threatened greenback cutthroat trout.

    A few months later, in September 2017, there was a good sign.

    “Lo and behold, we found some of the fish that we stocked as young-of-year in September 2016,” said Boyd Wright, a native aquatic species biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northeast region. “We thought that it was a failed plant. We are seeing those fish, albeit in a very low percentage of what we stocked out.”

    The news for greenbacks got better from there.

    The creek has been stocked five times since 2016. Last year, CPW put in older fish, some of which were about 5 inches long.

    “The real success story, I think, right now is with those fish we stocked last year as 1-year-olds,” Wright said. “We’ve seen on average about 35 percent survival on those. We’re really happy with that level of success. A year later, they’ve lived through a winter, they’ve lived through a runoff cycle. That’s significant.”

    State wildlife officials chose the Herman Gulch stream, near a popular hiking trail, because a barrier where it spills into Clear Creek near I-70 prevents other types of trout — browns, brooks and rainbows — from sullying the genetics of the pure greenback population.

    Before stocking the greenbacks, biologists remove other trout species from the creek.

    CPW says the retention rate of the greenbacks in Herman Gulch is an encouraging sign for projects that the agency is working on to reintroduce the fish in other watersheds…

    Greenbacks are being stocked in Dry Gulch, near Herman Gulch, and there are two more streams where CPW is building barriers — at a cost of about $250,000 — to stock the trout and keep other species out.

    “Everything we know about this system tells us that it should support a population of native trout,” Wright said of Herman Gulch. “For us, we expect to have reproductively mature fish by 2019 and will best be able to detect if those fish reproduce successfully by 2020. If we see 1-year-old fish in the system in 2020, we know we had good, successful reproduction in 2019. I think 2020 is going to be a big year for this project.”

    The hope is then to replicate that success elsewhere…

    That passion for the greenbacks and for fishing was on display on a recent weekday morning. Several dozen volunteers from Trout Unlimited gathered with CPW officials waiting for a truck filled with thousands of tiny greenback cutthroats to arrive from Mount Shavano Fish Hatchery near Salida.

    They huddled together in the chilly wind since the truck was more than an hour late. But they didn’t care about the delay.

    “It’s pretty amazing to see not only the fish take hold, but the people it brings out in support of this,” Omasta said of the different people involved in hauling the trout up to Herman Gulch. “Just this past summer we had families, we had kids from middle school and a high school, walking alongside old fishermen.”

    The volunteers fashioned an informal line as they waited for sloshing, 2-foot-tall, clear-plastic bags, each filled with 500 tiny greenbacks. They stuffed the bags into backpacks and headed uphill to free them into Herman Gulch.

    As volunteer Brett Piché strolled up to the stream, several 5- or 6-inch greenbacks darted back and forth in the water. Piché placed his bag of fish in the water and, after a few minutes, carefully released its contents into the crystal-clear stream.

    Immediately, a larger greenback swam up and gobbled a few of its smaller brethren and darted away.

    Herman Gulch via TheDenverChannel.com

    @USBR: Glen Canyon Dam High Flow Experimental Release #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    November 2012 High Flow Experiment via Protect the Flows

    Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

    On November 5-8, 2018, the Department of the Interior will conduct a high-flow experimental (HFE) release from Glen Canyon Dam. This HFE will include a peak magnitude release of approximately 38,100 cubic feet per second (cfs) for 60 hours (four days including ramping from baseflows to peak release) to move accumulated sediment downstream to help rebuild beaches and sandbars. This HFE will be the first conducted under the 2016 Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan (LTEMP) HFE Protocol; similar HFEs were conducted in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 in accordance with the 2011 HFE Environmental Assessment Protocol. The 2018 HFE is expected to provide resource benefits in the near term and will also provide scientific information to be used in future decision making.

    This HFE will not change the total annual amount of water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. Releases later in the water year will be adjusted to compensate for the high volume released during this experiment.

    “It happened stunningly fast…From absolutely silent, just the wind or the hiss of snowfall hitting the ground, to an industrialized landscape” — John Dahlke #ActOnClimate

    From National Geographic (Hannah Nordhaus):

    As the morning light grows over the eastern mountains, the outlandish mating ritual comes into view. The knee-high males strut around, puffing their white-feathered chests and splaying their tails. They chase one another and spar in a flurry of beating wings, heaving chests, and loud thunking. Meanwhile the females—smaller birds with brindled gray feathers that blend with sage and soil—stand around looking bored. It’s a ridiculous spectacle, and the human analogies are inescapable: singles bar, Venice Beach boardwalk, Senate hearing.

    Leaves and flowers of Artemisia tridentata.
    By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4424733

    The greater sage grouse is “unquestionably the most comical-looking bird I have ever seen,” ornithologist Charles Bendire noted in 1877. Back then there were millions of sage grouse across the American West. Native peoples and Anglo settlers alike hunted them for feathers and food. Camping in one Wyoming valley in the 1880s, naturalist George Bird Grinnell found it so crammed with grouse that it became a “moving mass of gray.”

    Such scenes are hard to find today. Less than 10 percent of the bird’s original population remains, about half a million birds scattered across 11 western states and two Canadian provinces. Sage grouse need undisturbed sagebrush; the tough, drought-resistant shrub feeds the birds, especially in winter, and shelters them and their nests. But sagebrush is in retreat everywhere. Massive overgrazing a century ago cleared the way for invasive grasses that now fuel devastating fires in the western part of the bird’s range. Roads and subdivisions, transmission lines, farms, gas fields, and wind turbines—all disrupt what was once an unbroken sea of sage.

    Preserving sagebrush for grouse would help other animals that depend on the same habitat, such as pronghorn, mule deer, pygmy rabbits, and burrowing owls. But it might prove costly to ranchers, miners, oil and gas developers, and real estate brokers. In 2015 then President Barack Obama’s administration brokered what it hailed as a historic collaboration among those competing interests. Now President Donald Trump’s administration is weakening provisions that steered oil and gas drilling away from areas that had been reserved for sage grouse.

    It’s the age-old battle between those who want to preserve western lands and those who want to extract a living from them—only in this case, the burden falls on a comical, knee-high bird. As the sage grouse goes, so goes the West.

    One of the biggest factors in the grouse’s decline these days may be the astonishing increase in natural gas production in places such as the Green River Basin, south of Pinedale, Wyoming. In 1984, when biologist John Dahlke first visited, the basin contained sagebrush, a few fence posts, some two-track roads, and not much else—except the largest known winter concentration of sage grouse. They would lift from the sage in lumbering waves, Dahlke recalls: “The sky was full of them, bumping into each other, falling down.”

    That basin is now home to one of the most productive gas fields in the region. Called the Jonah Field, it’s crisscrossed with roads and cluttered with chugging, groaning infrastructure: gas wells, drill rigs, pipelines, sage-camouflaged service huts. Nearly all of that is on federal land.

    “It happened stunningly fast,” says Dahlke, who works as a wildlife consultant in Pinedale. “From absolutely silent, just the wind or the hiss of snowfall hitting the ground, to an industrialized landscape.”

    The breakneck change has proved particularly hard on sage grouse because of their fidelity to ancestral mating and nesting grounds. Males return each spring to the same leks—clearings where they do their mating dances. Females usually nest within 500 yards or so of the previous year’s nest. Their chicks settle nearby.

    “Sage grouse are very poor pioneers,” Dahlke says. Rather than set off for better habitat—which is more and more limited—they dance doggedly on and nest among the bulldozers and flaring gas wells. Most birds survive in the short term, Dahlke says, but “incremental impacts” take their toll. The number of leks has dwindled. “The enormous winter flocks are now gone from the Jonah Field,” Dahlke says. “They are gone.”

    Only in the early 1990s did scientists start to realize the extent of the sage grouse’s decline across the West. In 1999 conservation groups filed the first petition requesting that the bird be protected under the Endangered Species Act. But for years the federal government, hamstrung by tight budgets and pressure from business interests, put off a reckoning. Listing sage grouse as endangered would sharply limit economic activity on the 173 million acres of public, state, and private land where sage grouse live.

    Greater sage grouse range map via the USFWS.

    But the threat of a listing motivated states to take action. In 2007 Wyoming, which houses more than a third of the remaining sage grouse and has an economy that depends on fossil fuel extraction, brought together a broad coalition—ranchers, industry representatives, conservation groups, land managers, and politicians—to create a policy to halt the bird’s decline.

    “We battled it out mightily,” says Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs at Jonah Energy, which operates on the Jonah Field. “And then we put our interests aside and asked, ‘What is best for Wyoming?’ ”

    The group ultimately agreed to limit any development and restore disturbed areas within “core” grouse habitat—not including the Jonah Field, where the grouse population was already diminished—while allowing more intensive development elsewhere.

    The Obama administration’s $60 million federal plan was modeled on Wyoming’s. No faction got everything it wanted. But, Ulrich says, “it’s demonstrably working.” Industry got certainty: The administration promised it wouldn’t list sage grouse as endangered. Conservationists, says Brian Rutledge of the Audubon Society, got limits on development in important habitat. “Do we have issues?” Rutledge asks. “Of course. But we set standards and are measuring impacts. To me this is the future of conservation.”

    Not everyone agreed. Groups on left and right filed suit, arguing, respectively, that the plan would not adequately protect grouse or that the restrictions were “draconian.” “The certainty of not being able to develop is not the kind of certainty we want,” says Kathleen Sgamma of Western Energy Alliance, an industry group.

    The Trump administration agrees: For the sake of energy independence and not “destroying local communities,” as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed lifting some restrictions on development in key sage grouse habitat. Under another proposed policy, which could affect many species, the administration would allow regulators to consider not only the science but also the economic impact of listing species as endangered.