From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):
The next Aspinall Operations meeting will be on Thursday, January 23rd, at the Holiday Inn Express in Montrose. Start time is 1:00.
From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):
The next Aspinall Operations meeting will be on Thursday, January 23rd, at the Holiday Inn Express in Montrose. Start time is 1:00.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Funding Opportunities in the Gunnison River Basin
Funding opportunities for water projects that help improve and conserve water and land resources can be found on GunnisonRiverBasin.org, including:
Colorado Water Plan Grants US Department of Agriculture federal grants and loans Colorado Water Conservation Board state grants and loans
Do you know a high school student interested in Western water issues? Encourage them to apply for the Diana Hoppe Memorial Scholarship. Read More.
From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):
Releases from the Aspinall Unit were decreased to 1100 cfs on Thursday, January 2nd. Blue Mesa Reservoir elevation ended the year within a foot of the icing target. Releases will be maintained at this level for the near future with possible adjustments made when new runoff forecast information becomes available. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for January through March.
Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1100 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):
In the late 1980s, conservation biologist Jessica Young was an undergraduate researching the sage grouse in the Sierra Nevada when one of her professors handed her a cassette tape. He said there was a guy out in Gunnison, Colo., who claimed that the grouse there sounded different. Young listened to the recording of grouse calls and decided she had to see the birds for herself.
Young began working with Clait Braun, a researcher at Colorado Parks and Wildlife (then called the Department of Wildlife) who had discovered as early as 1977 that the Gunnison sage-grouse was different from its cousin, the wider-ranging greater sage-grouse.
The work of Young, Braun and other scientists eventually helped prove that the Gunnison sage-grouse was a separate species of ground-nesting bird, one that was officially declared a new species in 2000.
But there was a problem.
Researchers quickly realized that not only was this grouse a new species, it was also in serious trouble. By the time they discovered that this bird — which is perfectly adapted to western Colorado’s high-desert sagebrush ecosystem and famous for its elaborate spring mating dance — was a distinctive, smaller species, the bird was already on the verge of vanishing.
“It was clear to me by the mid-1990s that this was about much more than the Gunnison sage-grouse,” Young said. “I remember thinking that it was probably going to be the 21st-century test of how my nation valued both biodiversity and the economic well-being of communities across the West. I believe that is what the Gunnison sage-grouse really represents.”
Target numbers too low?
After years of conservation efforts in the Gunnison basin and elsewhere, the bird’s numbers are still declining. In 2014, in a controversial move that sparked lawsuits from the state of Colorado, Gunnison County and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Five years later, it remains unclear what effect the listing has had on the bird.
This past fall, the FWS released its draft recovery plan for the species, which is open for public comment through Tuesday. The plan lays out target-population numbers that must be met for seven out of nine years before the species could be considered on the road to recovery and potentially delisted. The plan also charts conservation projects and actions for the next 50 years, at an estimated cost of more than $560 million. The final recovery plan is scheduled to be completed by Nov. 1.
But environmental groups — along with Braun and Young, two scientists who have dedicated much of their careers to studying the bird — say these population targets are too low to ensure recovery of the species. The target number for the Gunnison basin is 748; in 2019, researchers counted nearly 400 fewer than this.
Gunnison sage-grouse numbers have indeed declined — some say alarmingly so — in recent years.
Over the past several years, the three-year average high male count — the highest number of male birds that the researchers spot — has dropped across all populations. In the Gunnison basin, the 2019 number was 583, down from 772 in 2018, 886 in 2017 and 905 in 2016.
2019 posted the lowest bird numbers since the count methodology was standardized in 1996. The high male count for the Dove Creek population in western Dolores County dipped to zero, while high male counts at Cerro Summit and Poncha Pass in Colorado and the area near Monticello, hovered from just three to seven birds.
“You don’t want to see declines like this when you have seven birds,” said Kathy Griffin, grouse conservation coordinator for CPW. “To say we are not concerned would not be true. … We have seen these kinds of declines before, but we are getting to the lowest we’ve ever been.”
According to a paper by Braun, Young and others, the Gunnison sage-grouse once roamed throughout most of southwestern Colorado. It disappeared from Pitkin County in the 1960s. In the 1990s, it was extirpated in Eagle and Garfield counties.
The largest populations of the Gunnison sage-grouse — and around 85 percent of the bird’s remaining total population — live in the Gunnison basin. Smaller populations of the species, referred to as satellite populations, are scattered throughout western Colorado (Cerro Summit, Crawford, Dove Creek, Pinon Mesa, Poncha Pass and western San Miguel County) and eastern Utah (Monticello).
The 2014 “threatened” listing was based mostly on these shrinking satellite populations, which scientists think need to remain robust as an insurance policy should some kind of environmental-related disaster or disease befall the main population of birds in the Gunnison basin.
Those who opposed federal involvement, including Gunnison County, still feel the sting of the 2014 listing as an affront to the collaborative conservation work of local groups, including the county-led Gunnison Sage-Grouse Strategic Committee. Committee Chair and Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said the recovery plan, much like the listing itself, still focuses too much on the satellite populations. The Gunnison basin, Houck said, is doing its part to help the bird.
“The draft recovery plan correctly recognizes the high resiliency of the Gunnison sage-grouse population in the Gunnison basin and also recognizes correctly the strength of the habitat protection in the Gunnison basin,” Houck said. “The irony to me is this is the entire argument we made before the listing.”
CPW uses something called “High Male Count” to track bird numbers year over year. Each spring, biologists watch from the sidelines as regal-looking male Gunnison sage-grouse perform their courtship ritual — strutting and bobbing, fanning their banded tail feathers and popping their air sacs in an effort to attract a female — on leks, which are open areas ringed by sagebrush that the birds return to year after year.
Researchers count each male they see on several trips to the leks they make each season, meaning the same bird can be counted more than once. These numbers are then averaged over three years to smooth out the seven-to-12-year fluctuations associated with grouse population and used to estimate the total population size.
The one-two punch of 2018’s extreme drought, which may have resulted in bird deaths, and 2019’s deep snow may have contributed to this year’s low counts. Counting is a logistical challenge because of the precise method used. CPW biologists were not able to access all of the leks last spring because of lingering deep snow, and in other areas, counters heard the birds’ signature popping noise but didn’t catch sight of them.
“We had a horrible year of counting,” Griffin said. “Because we could never see them, we had to put down a zero even though we knew there were birds there.”
Whatever the reason for the low counts, bird populations will need to increase in order for the FWS to consider the species recovered and to potentially delist it. The recovery plan sets a target three-year average high male count in the Gunnison basin of 748 for seven out of nine years for the population to be considered stable.
The sagebrush sea
Braun and others, including environmental group Rocky Mountain Wild, also say the draft recovery plan lacks specificity when it comes to how to conserve the bird’s habitat — the silvery-green expanse known as the sagebrush sea.
Western Colorado’s sagebrush sea is naturally fragmented by canyons and mountains. But in recent decades, prime habitat has also been bisected by roads and trails, interrupted by residential developments, affected by cattle grazing, and encroached upon by pinon and juniper trees. The Bureau of Land Management manages about 42 percent of Gunnison sage-grouse habitat.
“I think the really key thing is that there needs to be habitat that is set aside from development and other threats on public land, and that isn’t really the case right now,” said Megan Mueller, a senior conservation biologist at Rocky Mountain Wild.
Although some private landowners in the Gunnison basin have participated in habitat restoration projects such as restoring wet meadows and putting conservation easements on their property to protect it from future development, Braun says those measures are not enough. He thinks a more drastic action is needed: stopping livestock from grazing on public land in Gunnison sage-grouse habitat until populations of the bird increase.
“Grazing is a key factor in why sage-grouse populations are down in the Gunnison basin,” Braun said. “Until we get a handle on the livestock grazing, nothing is going to really improve.”
Braun recognizes that his idea to temporarily outlaw grazing on public land in Gunnison sage-grouse habitat is an idea many will find unpalatable, even radical. Ranching is an important part of the culture of rural western Colorado.
“We want to keep ranching active in the Gunnison Valley,” Houck said. “It’s the thing that’s defined this place.”
One challenge to habitat conservation, Young said, is that the sagebrush sea has long been an undervalued ecosystem. It has traditionally been a place with few regulations, where mountain biking and hiking trails snake through the landscape; where people put dumps and mine tailings; where driving off-road was — and sometimes still is — common; and where overgrazing damaged the landscape.
Saving the Gunnison sage-grouse, Young said, will require reexamining the economic, social and ecological values that people hold about this landscape. Although the federal involvement may have polarized some groups, the little ground-nesting bird also has the potential to bring together disparate factions to work toward the same goal: species conservation.
“I think, in the 2000s, the Gunnison sage-grouse are asking us again to consider what our values are for both biodiversity and community success during a time of climate change,” Young said. “They are going to be an indication of how we come together and demonstrate our values and resilience.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and Aspen Public Radio on coverage of water and environmental issues. This story was published online by The Aspen Times on Dec. 31 and a conversation about this reporting aired on APR on Dec. 31.
Here’s a report from Michael Cox that’s running in The Montrose Press:
Prior to the Great World War (great only signifying size and intensity), one of the most productive pieces of land on the Western Slope of Colorado was regularly converted to a destructive river of Spring snow or Summer storm runoff from the Uncompahgre Plateau.
The Shavano (shav-a-no) Valley was named for a Ute Chief, and was either visited or inhabited by native peoples as early as 3,000 years ago. The Ute’s came about a thousand years ago. It was fine winter ground and in spring and summer the grass was lush, affording excellent feed for the tribe’s livestock.
American settlers came in the late 1800s and found the Valley to have the most fertile and easy-to-till soil in the area. There was also a bit of water from an artisian spring that feed a meandering creek. There is an excellent explanation for how the soil developed in the valley. In all probability, it was those regular floods that swept from the plateau and covered much of the Valley, at various times of the year, in water. Along with the water, the floods were depositing a new layer of silt to the already deep soil.
But enough is enough already. By the late 1930s and early 1940s the farmers in the Valley grew weary of rebuilding and reclaiming after the floods. The damage to their infrastructure was immense and included dead livestock, ruined roads, and lost homes. The locals tried some small diversions, dykes, and flood ways, which had only minimal effect. The task was tantamount to parting the sea, but Moses and his stick were nowhere nearby. Enter the Shavano Conservation District, a cooperative of farms and ranches joining together and forming the district with the idea of petitioning the Bureau of Reclamation to help put up some defenses against the floods.
“The farmers had figured out that they needed some serious diversion dams along the west side of the Valley,” says Mendy Stewart the Shavano District chief of education and communication. “But they had neither the tools nor the money to build them.”
In May of 1937, the Shavano Soil Conservation District (SSCD) was organized under the Colorado Soil Conservation District Act. By October of 1941, the intensifying world war not withstanding, the district plan got the nod from 111 landowners, representing 20,200 acres in Montrose County.
Eventually, two other smaller districts, the Uncompahgre and the Cimarron, joined the Shavano group – soil conservation became a way of life. Now the district covers 1.2 million acres in Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison and Delta counties. The Delta County segment is a tiny bit of acreage on the Montrose/Delta County line. In 2002 the District dropped the use of the word “soil” from the name as did other such entities across the country…
Eventually, with grants from the Bureau of Reclamation and using the equipment and manpower pool of the district, three diversion dams were built to stop the wild flow off the plateau and divert it into ditches. This kept the flood waters off the farm land and out of the homes and barns in the Valley.
The largest of the three dams is at the south head of the Valley and involves an earthen structure measuring more than a half mile from one end to the other. The spillway and some of the dam are concrete reinforced. The runoff from the Plateau collects behind the dam. The flow out of the pool is controlled and put into ditches, such as the M&D canal below the dam…
According to Stewart the list of things the SCD is involved in includes irrigation water management, flood control, technical assistance with conservation efforts, youth and adult environmental education, and special projects such as the Western Colorado Soil Health Conference. The 2020 conference is scheduled for February 20 and 21 at the Delta Center for the Performing Arts.
From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):
Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD) board member Bill Trampe spoke to the county commissioners this past fall on behalf of the neighboring river district. Kathleen Curry, the chairman of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, also spoke with commissioners during that meeting.
Trampe reported that the transfer of ownership of Wolford Mountain reservoir near Kremmling in Grand County occurs on January 1, 2020. “So at that point in time Denver Water gets 40 percent of the ownership,” he said.
Trampe said demand management and drought contingency planning is always front and center for the board, and said the board is frustrated with the state process moving forward and its slowness putting the nine working groups involved in the state water planning process (Colorado’s Water Plan) to work…
Trampe described issues relating to water resource demand management, with “interests” on the Western Slope trying to make deals with Front Range entities.
Trampe said the district felt that individual groups making those deals could lead to a lot more “working the market and eventual condemnation rather than purchase—meaning condemnation by force rather than a deal between parties. If condemnation starts, I think that’s going to ruin everything.”
The solution, he said, is to work together with Western Slope entities and keep a strong base in the river district to negotiate more collectively. “If there’s one pot of money under state control to pay for demand management, then that’s the way it ought to be. There shouldn’t be individual groups out there doing their own thing.”
County commissioner John Messner asked if there’s been discussion among river districts about a de-Gallagherizing measure to open up current tax funding constraints. De-Gallagherizing refers to ballot measures that freeze the residential property tax rate as a way to stabilize budgets of rural governments.
Messner asked if the CRWCD has an opinion on whether a measure will address special districts such as this one.
“We considered a ballot issue for this fall, but didn’t think we were ready,” replied Trampe. He said the reason to wait was to start more outreach to the public in terms of what the districts are and what they do beforehand. He said the districts are hoping to do this in 2020.
“Whether it’s de-Gallagherization, or TABOR issues, we’re still trying to decide. But yes, we’re going to do something. We’ve got to do something,” he said.
Looking to support a water survey on the Crystal River basin
Commissioner Jonathan Houck reported that during a fall Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting, members discussed the Upper Crystal River watershed at length.
That watershed has an application in with the state to conduct a water study, because the 2018 drought demonstrated that several subdivisions in that basin, some of which are in Gunnison County, had no water plan or storage without the Crystal River’s regular flow.
The Water Supply Reserve Fund (WSRF) is managing that application, and the Gunnison Roundtable considered and ultimately decided on drafting a letter of support…
Curry noted that a project in a different river basin asking an adjacent roundtable to write a letter is “a little out of the ordinary. So that threw our roundtable a little bit, wondering if that was even the right role. But I put it on our agenda since, if it involved looking at storage feasibility near Marble, in Gunnison County, I thought [commissioners] might be interested in that,” said Curry.
Houck responded that the county should send a message as well. “We want to see good, thoughtful water planning per all residents within the county. Due to the size and geography of our county we actually span two watersheds. And it’s important for us to advocate for that but understand that the funding needs to come from the appropriate basin,” he said…
Last, Curry said that the roundtable is preparing to submit a Basin Implementation Plan (BIP) in contribution to Colorado’s Water Plan, and that will include an updated project list. “This is our opportunity to change our project list,” she suggested, with additions or deletions as appropriate. The roundtable formed a subcommittee to begin the process, and its first meeting was this fall.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:
Work to restore wild rainbow trout in the Gunnison Gorge is starting to pay off as the population of the species is slowly increasing, according to surveys conducted recently by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. CPW biologists are hopeful that the success on the Gunnison will eventually help bring wild rainbows back to all Colorado’s rivers and streams.
Rainbow trout once dominated the renowned Gunnison River; but in 1994 CPW biologists found fish there infected with whirling disease and their population drifted toward zero. Brown trout, which are much more resistant to whirling disease, quickly took over and now are the dominant fish in the gorge and many other Colorado streams. Whirling disease infected streams and rivers throughout the state and imperiled rainbow trout populations.
The most significant observation from the Gunnison survey completed in October showed an abundance of “young of the year” fish that hatched in mid-summer and that showed no symptoms of whirling disease.
“We found the highest number of rainbow fry we’ve ever seen since the 1990s and they were spread over multiple sites in the canyon,” said Eric Gardunio, aquatic biologist for CPW in Montrose. “We’re seeing natural reproduction throughout the canyon and survival of wild fish in the life stage where they can be affected by whirling disease. It’s very encouraging.”
For adult fish, the survey found 630 rainbow trout per mile in the survey sections. That’s significantly fewer than the 1,500-2,000 rainbows found per mile in the days before whirling disease; but improvement from the last few years is evident. In 2014, surveys found just 173 fish per mile; 489 fish per mile in 2016; and 522 fish per mile in 2017.
By comparison, brown trout now number about 5,000 fish per mile.
“It’s a very healthy river, but for rainbows we have a long way to go before we’ll be comfortable saying they are fully recovered,” Gardunio said.
CPW continues to stock whirling-disease resistant rainbows in that section of the Gunnison and at other rivers throughout the state.
The recovery plan for the fish started tentatively in 2003 when CPW obtained a whirling-disease resistant strain of rainbows from a hatchery in Germany. The fish, however, had been hatchery-raised for decades and were “domesticated”, meaning they had no experience in the wild. CPW researchers crossed the spawn of these fish, known as Hofers, with several other strains of rainbow trout. The crosses showed significant resistance to whirling disease and exhibited a “flight response” when placed in reservoirs.
In the spring of 2007, biologists started stocking the Hofer-cross fry in rivers and reservoirs statewide. Results were mixed throughout the state, but biologists found that the new strains did best in the East Portal section of the Gunnison River where CPW had, for many years, spawned wild trout to supply state hatcheries. That spot continues to be a productive area and rainbows are spawned there every year. They’ve even been given their own name – Gunnison River Rainbows.
Finding the young wild fish downstream in the Gunnison Gorge provides another encouraging sign that the 20-year journey to recover rainbow trout has been worth the effort. The abundance of brown trout, predators that feast on small fish, are perhaps the biggest challenge in the Gunnison and other rivers.
“The wild fry are the best thing for us to see down there,” Gardunio said. “As those fish grow into adults we’ll have more and more fish and hopefully, a self-sustaining population. We hope to see a continuing gradual increase.”
And if they thrive in the Gunnison, biologists are confident they’ll eventually take hold in big rivers throughout the state.