@CPW and @JSandersonCO find ~8 week old bluehead sucker fry in Dolores River

August 16, 2017: Colorado ParksWildlife and John Sanderson found imperiled bluehead sucker fry on Dolores River — a hopeful sign.
Blue head sucker
Dolores River watershed

“#Wyoming will continue to rely on science and scientists to manage,” the Greater Sage-Grouse — Gov. Matt Mead

Greater sage grouse via Idaho Fish and Game

Here’s the release from Governor Mead’s office:

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead released the following statement on today’s announcement from the US Department of the Interior (DOI) regarding Greater Sage-Grouse management:

“Secretary Zinke and the Department of the Interior made an earnest effort to collaborate with the states during the sage-grouse management review,” said Governor Mead. “The states have primacy over sage-grouse management and Wyoming’s plan is solid and should be allowed to work. The Wyoming approach balances energy, agriculture, conservation and recreation. The federal plans do not fully implement the Wyoming approach. While DOI identifies numerous ways to improve federal plans, I am concerned that the recommendations place more focus on population targets and captive breeding. Industry needs predictability, but the report does not explain fully how population targets provide that certainty. Wyoming will continue to rely on science and scientists to manage the species. I will continue to work with Secretary Zinke, state and local stakeholders on this issue.”

San Juan River: Scientists find yearling #Colorado Pikeminnow

From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

A fish that federal officials say was once widely known as the “salmon of the southwest” shows signs of recovering its diminished population in the San Juan River basin, according to data collected last year.

Scientists say they have found evidence that the Colorado pikeminnow is reproducing in the San Juan River, and the offspring are surviving.

This conclusion is based on data gathered last year following the spring peak release from Navajo Dam. Scientists found more Colorado pikeminnow in the San Juan River than in previous years, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Services. They also found 23 yearling fish. Prior to last year, only one juvenile fish had been caught by scientists since work began in the 1990s to restore habitat.

In a press release, Tom Wesche, a University of Wyoming professor emeritus and a member of the San Juan River Recovery Implementation Program’s biology committee, said finding the young fish that had been born in the river and survived the winter is great news. He said it “hopefully represents important progress along the road to species recovery.”

More than 540 Colorado pikeminnow were counted in the San Juan River last year, according to a press release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service…

The San Juan River Recovery Implementation Program — which includes participation by several entities, including the state of New Mexico, that are working to improve habitat in the San Juan River — is credited with helping the endangered Colorado pikeminnow recover. The program’s goal is to eventually get the Colorado pikeminnow removed from the endangered species list.

One of 23 yearling endangered Colorado pikeminnow captured in 2016 in the San Juan River by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish biologists is measured. This is only the second time that yearling fish have been captured in the San Juan River. (Photo: Courtesy of New Mexico Department Game and Fish) via The Farmington Daily Times.

Whitmore said finding the juvenile fish was a step toward reaching that goal. There are still other milestones that need to be met before the fish can be removed from the list.

There must be more than 800 adult Colorado pikeminnow and more than 1,000 juveniles in the San Juan River basin before the species can be delisted. Other criteria that must be met are listed on the program’s website.

Whitmore said the Colorado pikeminnow’s decline was likely caused by human development along the river, including dams, diversions and depletion of water for agricultural uses…

Snow melt, which increases the flow of the river, triggers the fish to spawn, but the dam at Navajo Lake has prevented large spring runoffs. When there is enough moisture, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation increases the flow in the San Juan River to 5,000 cubic feet per second. The bureau has able to conduct the spring peak release for the past two years.

Danielle Tremblay of Colorado Parks and Wildlife holding a Colorado pikeminnow collected on the Colorado River in Grand Junction. An apex predator in the Colorado, pikeminnows used to be found up to six feet long and weighing 100 pounds.

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.

CPW: Native trout return to Woods Lake

Woods Lake photo credit Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

Native cutthroat trout are returning to a corner of the San Juan Mountains as part of a conservation project by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

On Sept. 20, Parks and Wildlife biologists stocked more than 250 native cutthroat trout in Woods Lake southwest of Telluride. This location was selected because it will provide excellent quality cutthroat habitat: the area is isolated, the water is pristine and barriers protect the lake from non-native fish that live downstream. Once the population is established, the lake will provide the broodstock which will eventually assist in cutthroat conservation efforts throughout the Dolores and Gunnison river basins.

“This area was populated with native trout before settlers arrived in Colorado, but the fish haven’t been present in, probably, over a half a century,” said Dan Kowalski, an aquatic researcher with Parks and Wildlife in Montrose. “This is one of the few spots in southwest Colorado suitable for this type of restoration project and it will provide a great refuge for this important native fish. This project will help give the cutthroat a long-term foothold in the area, expand their numbers and range, and benefit native trout conservation throughout southwest Colorado.”

The reintroduced trout were captured from a small stream on the Uncompahgre Plateau earlier in the day and transported by horseback and then by truck to the lake. Wild fish from the small stream will also be spawned in the spring of 2013 so that larger numbers of fish can be introduced to Woods Lake and tributaries, Muddy Creek and Fall Creek, next summer.

“We’ll do that to give us multiple age classes of fish and to provide good genetic diversity,” Kowalski said.

Anglers can expect to start catching some cutthroat trout in the summer of 2018 but it will be a couple of years before there are large numbers of older-age fish to catch. Anglers are encouraged to release all fish they catch for the next couple of years to allow the population to grow. Fishing in the lake and streams above is restricted to artificial flies and lures only.

Cutthroat trout have been eliminated from many rivers and streams in western Colorado due to habitat loss, water quality impacts and the introduction of non-native. The native fish, which has been petitioned for listing as an endangered species, can now be found in only about 14 percent of its historic range in the Rocky Mountain West. This reintroduction project is an effort to restore the native trout to its former habitat, expand the fish’s range and prevent the need for an endangered species listing.

“Restoring these native fish should be important to all citizens and water users in the basin that depend on our rivers for irrigation and drinking water because a federal listing could affect the state’s management of the species and water use in the basin,” Kowalski said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife worked cooperatively with the U.S. Forest Service during the last two summers to remove the non-native fish from Woods Lake and the tributaries.

Elsewhere in southwest Colorado — and only about 20 miles as the crow flies southeast of Woods Lake — another cutthroat restoration project is ongoing in the upper Hermosa Creek drainage near the Purgatory ski resort in San Juan County. When that project is completed in about five years, more than 20 miles of Hermosa Creek and feeder streams will be home to native cutthroats.

“Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been working on native trout restoration throughout the state for nearly 30 years and our work will continue,” said John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for the southwest region. “This is truly a long-term effort.”

To learn more about efforts by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to restore native trout, see:http://wildlife.state.co.us/Research/Aquatic/CutthroatTrout/Pages/CutthroatTrout.aspx.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

A Rare Fish, A Cold Creek, And A Warm Future: #ClimateChange At The Sand Dunes

From Colorado Public Radio (Nathaniel Minor):

At first, they look like a mirage on the edge of the horizon of southern Colorado’s broad and sweeping San Luis Valley. Then, as you rumble south down Highway 17 through Moffat and the other barely-holding-on valley towns, their wave-like ridges reveal a unique reality.

Finally, as you turn east and head into the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, mountains of sand tower almost 800 feet over you and the valley floor.

“A piece of Arabian desert transplanted into this plain,” wrote Dr. Friedrich Adolph Wislizenus, in his remembrance of an 1848 expedition to northern New Mexico.

But this isn’t the Arabian Peninsula. Nor is it the coast. These dunes were created in this landlocked valley by prevailing winds that pick up sand and deposit it in the shadow of the Sangre De Cristo mountains. The 30-square-mile dune field offers a view unlike any other in Colorado.

“I would rather go three days around, than travel once more over the sand hills with a wagon,” Wislizenus wrote more than 150 years ago, a thought echoed by many hikers since then.

These days, most visitors will play in the cool water of adjacent Medano Creek before they climb up one or two dunes. Few venture up into the mountains on the eastern side of the dunes. And it’s there the park is investing in an ambitious project that’s symbolic of how land managers are approaching one of their biggest long-term issues: climate change.

Largely Unscathed — So Far

Earlier this summer, President Barack Obama declared that climate change is the biggest issue the 100-year-old National Park Service now faces. The effects of warmer temperatures at places like Rocky Mountain National Park are clear — once-clear lakes are now warm enough to sprout algae blooms, for example.

In Colorado’s other national parks, the effects are more subtle: warmer temperatures are complicating already difficult climbs at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. And in Mesa Verde, scientists wonder if the changing climate is affecting the stability of ancient Pueblo ruins.

Sand Dunes appears largely unscathed — so far. The park’s average annual air temperature has held steady around 42 degrees Fahrenheit (or 6 degrees Celsius) for more than 100 years.

The annual air temperature at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has held fairly steady since 1895. Courtesy National Park Service via Colorado Public Radio.

A recent study looked at pikas, a tiny rodent-like mammal that lives on mountain peaks and can die from overheating after just a few hours at eight national parks across the West. Researchers concluded there’s “encouraging evidence” the small mammal will be able to survive at the Sand Dunes.

But one climate model from the National Park Service says that unless the world’s carbon emissions drop by 40 to 70 percent, temperatures at the park could rise by up to 9 degrees by 2100.

Under those scenarios, invasive plants like leafy spurge could move in, streams and creeks could run dry, and wildfires could become more frequent. That has staff at the Sand Dunes thinking hard about how they can help the park adapt to a warming climate.

Which brings us to trout.

Kevin Terry, a project coordinator for Colorado Trout Unlimited, holds up a Rio Grande cutthroat trout at Upper Sand Creek Lake.

One of the park’s current projects is the restoration of the native Rio Grande cutthroat trout to the Sand Creek watershed, which tumbles down the Sangres to the north side of the dunes. Fred Bunch, resource management specialist at the park, said the park has spent about $120,000 on it so far, and plans to spend about double that before it’s all said and done.
But Bunch said the money, which comes from visitor fees, Sand Dunes is spending on the trout project is worth it. It’s park service policy to restore native species. And the Sand Creek watershed, wildlife officials believe, is an ideal place for the fish now — and they hope it will be decades from now as well.

Elevation An Ally

“It’s all a function of elevation,” Bunch said. “Higher elevation streams may be a great area for habitat for the Rio Grande cutthroat as we see this climatic variability.”

Andrew Todd, a research biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Lakewood, has been collecting data for the Sand Creek project for a few years now. He developed his interest in fish years ago as a kid when his dad would take him and his siblings fishing near Aspen.

For some reason, Todd said, they would always catch a ton of fish. Finally, 10 years ago, his dad ‘fessed up.

“He’d make sure we were on the water right after the stocking truck came through,” Todd said. “So our whole childhood fishing experience was based on a lie.”

These days, Todd is devoted to the plight of the Rio Grande cutthroat. The state fish of New Mexico is native to that state and southern Colorado. It was decimated first by miners who overfished it in the 19th century, then by the invasive rainbow, brook and brown trout the miners brought in as replacements.

“Over time, your cutthroat trout population will lose out,” Todd explained. “They interbreed with rainbow trout and they don’t compete well with brown and brook trout.”

Today, the Rio Grande cutthroat exists only in 10-15 percent of its historic range. It’s so rare, in fact, that the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group, sued the federal government last month because they want the fish to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigner for the Arizona group, said he supports the NPS-led project. He just wants more projects like it.

“This lawsuit is necessary because the fish, despite efforts from a lot of people, is continuing to decline,” McKinnon said. “Endangered Species Act protections will compel a more vigorous recovery program, a more coordinated recovery program. And it will provide the agencies the resources they need to get the job done.”

The surviving fish are mostly relegated to small rivers in the Rio Grande basin. Those isolated populations are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change — droughts and wildfires can erase them in short order.

Wildlife officials got a scare earlier this summer during the Hayden Pass Fire about 60 miles north of the Sand Dunes. They were worried that another rare cutthroat trout that only lives in one small location in that area actually went extinct because of the fire.

It turns out the fish survived, but that wildfire made the stakes clear.

“If you have a really small stream, just one stream, [with] no tributaries, and it burns you could lose that entire population,” Todd said.

That’s not the case at Sand Creek, where nearly the entire watershed is on public land. The area they are trying to restore isn’t just one small piece of water. It’s a whole self-contained system, from snowmelt-fed lakes to where the creek seeps underground on the valley floor.

“You could potentially have a fire in there that burned a good portion of the watershed,” Todd said. “As long as it doesn’t burn the whole thing, you’re well buffered against things like wildfire.”

If the project is successful, Todd said that Sand Creek and its tributaries would make up one of the largest cutthroat trout watersheds in the state.

The water temperature data Todd has collected so far shows promise for the Rio Grande cutthroat. Up at the top of the mountain range, Todd said the sun actually warms Sand Creek quite a bit. But as it falls below treeline, and its colder tributaries dump into it, it gets really, really cold.

And that’s just how the trout like it.

“Our standard for cutthroat trout is around 17 degrees [Celsius],” Todd said. “In Sand Creek, where it hits the sand it’s about 12 or 13 [Celsius]. So we’ve got a good 4- or 5-degree buffer before we start to butt up against temperatures here that would preclude trout from being here.”

Water temperatures rise more slowly than air temperatures, Todd said. So even if climate change pushes air temperatures to the higher end of the park’s estimates, the trout could theoretically still survive.

If that kind of change takes place, the Sand Dunes will have “many other problems” to deal with, he surmised.

Killing Many Fish To Save A Few

Eventually, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will remove all the non-native fish from the watershed using a natural pesticide called rotenone. It kills only fish and leaves other wildlife unharmed.

After the creek, its tributaries and the nearby lakes are cleared and restocked with Rio Grande cutthroat, the fish will need about three years to recover. That means anglers who fish the drainage will have to look elsewhere for awhile.

“It’s the consequence of restoring,” said John Alves, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s senior aquatic biologist for the southwest region. “There’s drainages nearby that also have trout.”

It’s possible that CPW could apply rotenone in stages; a waterfall halfway up the creek provides a natural barrier. So once the top half is cleared, they don’t need to worry about non-natives in the lower part invading again.

It’s also very difficult to reach Sand Creek, which helps keep out “bucket biologists” — anglers bent on undoing the government’s work by dumping non-native fish back into a cleared waterway.

“When you go in and you try to reclaim it for the natives, not everyone is always on board,” Todd said.

The whole idea of killing off a watershed is off-putting to at least one angler. Phil Armstrong has fished there for more than decade and said while he can appreciate the desire to restore a native fish, he’s disheartened by the “heavy-handed tactics” the state will use.

“Nothing natural is left in this state. People have been everywhere. Mining has been everywhere,” he said. “We’re only taking human intervention steps to get to some approximation of that. We don’t know what that watershed was like a hundred years ago.”

Andrew Todd concedes that point. He doesn’t have proof that Sand Creek historically held Rio Grande cutthroat. But philosophical arguments aside, Todd said the important thing is to strike a balance between native and non-native fish.

“We need to decide what level of biodiversity we want to protect,” Todd said. “It’s one of the prettiest fish in Colorado. And I think it’s worth preserving.”

The project is something of a sequel for the NPS’ Fred Bunch. The park restored Rio Grande cutthroat to Medano Creek using similar tactics back in the 1980s and 90s. Bunch said he’s excited to expand anglers’ chances of catching a native trout even more — especially given that their dollars are paying for the Sand Creek project.

“If this species is restored to 12 miles of prime habitat, that is a huge victory,” he said.

Bunch said he wants anglers to be able to count on a “consistent experience” at the park and preserve. With the climate forecasted to be anything but consistent, what the National Park Service does now, in southern Colorado and elsewhere across the country, faces its real test in the decades to come.

Sandy: This shot of the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado is another which came out on top in the crop of 2015 images

In The Rockies, #ClimateChange Spells Trouble For Cutthroat Trout

Native westslope cutthroat trout swim in the north fork of the Flathead River in northwestern Montana. However, cutthroat trout populations are threatened by hybridization from mating with rainbow trout.
Photo credit Jonny Armstrong/USGS via National Public Radio.

From National Public Radio (Christopher Joyce):

There’s an unplanned experiment going on in the northern Rocky Mountains. What’s happening is that spring is arriving earlier, and it’s generally warmer and drier than usual. And that’s messing with some of the fish that live there.

The fish is the iconic cutthroat trout. It’s a native North American fish that thrives in cold, small streams. Explorer Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame was among the first European-Americans to catch this spangly, spotted fish. He used deer spleen as bait.

It’s relative rarity now makes it a favorite for catch-and-release anglers. But biologists have now found that it’s in danger. The much more common rainbow trout is invading cutthroat streams and mating with the native fish. Ecologist Clint Muhlfeld says that creates hybrids.

“It jumbles up the genes that are linked to the locally adapted traits that these fish have evolved with,” says Muhlfeld, who’s with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station.

Those traits have allowed cutthroats to survive through millennia in cold northern streams. And cold streams were thought to protect them from rainbows, which prefer warmer water.

But climate change is warming many high-altitude streams, and they frequently have less water, another change that favors rainbows. So they’re moving in.

Muhlfeld says that when rainbows and cutthroats breed, the resulting hybrids are feeble — “less fit,” in biological terms. “They don’t survive as well as the native fish,” he says. And hybrids that do survive continue to make more hybrids; there’s no going back to making cutthroats again.

Writing in the journal Global Change Biology, Muhlfeld and a team of scientists from several research institutions studied fish in hundreds of locations in the northern Rockies. Hybridization was widespread. It was most common in places where fish and game departments have introduced rainbow trout, a practice that goes back to the 19th century.

Some states are trying to solve the problem by getting rid of rainbow trout. That might not please some anglers, but Muhlfeld says the cutthroat species could disappear otherwise.

“There are so many places around the world where you can go catch a rainbow trout,” he says; it’s been introduced all over the world. “There’s very few places where you can actually go and catch a native fish that’s been around for thousands and thousands of years.

“Extinction is permanent. Once the native genomes and adaptive traits are gone, they are gone forever.”