Installed last September, a net designed to keep non-native, predatory fish at Elkhead Reservoir from entering the Yampa River appears to be fulfilling its purpose, though it may be too soon to tell.
This spring, Colorado Parks and Wildlife conducted its first count of the two species of concern, northern pike and smallmouth bass, in the stretch of water between the net and the spillway, where water leaves the reservoir and enters Elkhead Creek, which feeds into the Yampa.
“In our first sample this spring, we didn’t see any indication that the net was failing,” said CPW Aquatic Biologist Tory Eyre.
The count was taken before the reservoir filled with spring runoff and water began spilling over the spillway. Another count taken this fall, after the reservoir is done spilling, will give biologists an even better idea of how the net is working.
“This is a big spill year,” Eyre said. “When it’s spilling, it can suck trees and other debris through, damaging the net.”
Officials are hoping the net, made of a sturdy polyethylene mesh, will hold up to any debris that gets swept its way, and divers will check and clean the net once a year.
The net is one piece of a multi-pronged approach to protect four species of endangered fish in the Yampa River, the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker…
The net will hopefully keep the predatory fish contained, but with so many factors affecting the species, biologists won’t necessarily be able to determine the precise impact of the net on endangered fish populations…
The life span of the $1.2 million net is only estimated at about seven years, Eyre said, which is why CPW is also hoping to check northern pike and smallmouth bass populations through its new, annual Elkhead Reservoir Fishing Classic.
The four native fish involved with the program are the Colorado Pikeminnow, Bonytail, Humpback Chub, and Razorback Sucker. As these unique fish are found only in this part of the world, the Colorado River Basin, the decline is due to the loss in habitat and several non-native fish species preying on them, including Small Mouth Bass, Northern Pike, and Walleye.
“The fish that we’re trying to remove compete for resources with the native fish as well as they are predatorial fish and they’ll eat the native fish as well,” said Tory Eyre, Aquatic Biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).
These non-native fish are coming into these native fish habitats from reservoirs overflowing and from a way that is a bit more unorthodox.
“People are moving live fish from one body of water to another and that is illegal on the West Slope of Colorado, and when we have folks that are doing that, it results in a lot of our time and dollars to try to eradicate those species from areas in places that we don’t want them to be,” said Lori Martin, Senior Aquatic Biologist with CPW.
Eyre explained the various instinctive recover efforts helping to save these native fish, “we propagate fish so we raise fish in hatcheries and stock them. We alter habitat [and] try to alter flows. Then our involvement is with the non-native removal.”
Eyre added, “We placed gill nets in the backwaters that are a certain mesh size that targets the Northern Pike and we try to catch them in while they are entering the backwater to spawn.”
CPW has also worked with other program partners to install spillway screens in reservoirs at Elkhead and Highline Lake State Parks to prevent non-native fish from escaping into the Yampa and Colorado Rivers.
“It allows us to stock warm water fish that are okay with the recovery program into Highline Lake and the purpose of it is to keep those fish in the lake and not allow them to get in the Colorado River,” said Alan Martinez, Park Manager for Highline Lake State Park.
However, those with the initiative have been running into a small issue as the recovery program is controversial for some people. Eyre explained, “Small Mouth Bass and Northern Pike are sport fish…people like to catch them.”
As this is upsetting to some anglers, CPW has been working with the program’s agencies, and with anglers, to address their frustrations.
“We’re trying to provide opportunities for anglers for similar species in waters or areas where there is no interaction with native fish,” said Martin.
To encourage involvement by the angling public, CPW is sponsoring the Elkhead Reservoir Fishing Classic Tournament from June 24-July 2 in Craig.
“The aim is to have anglers help us remove small mouth bass and northern pike so we that can better provide a compatible sport fishery that’s in line with endangered fish recovery efforts downstream,” said Martin.
With all of the efforts in helping to reduce the non-native fish to increase the native fish populations, CPW officials say some improvements with some species have already been made in some locations along the Western Slope.
“This is kind of our one chance to recovery these species. They’re not found anywhere else, so if they’re gone, then they’re gone, and they’re gone forever,” said Eyre.
The tournament is hosted by CPW, and it is offering over $6,000 in prizes, but the effort is part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery program.
To prevent further federal involvement, the recovery program was formed in 1988 to provide endangered species act compliance and keep water development projects closer to the local level.
Three states — Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — along with a multitude of federal agencies and private organizations formed the recovery program to help improve fish populations of the endangered humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker and ponytail.
The program’s actions are dictated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but it still provides an important buffer between state and federal government.
If the program fails and is dissolved, an individual who draws water from the Yampa River would have to justify their use and provide evidence that their use does not impact endangered fishes — a task the recovery program currently completes.
Sherman Hebein, CPW’s senior aquatic biologist for the northwest region, said his organization is hosting the tournament at Elkhead and offering serious prizes because it is important to engage the public in the effort to control non-natives.
Elkhead Reservoir is home to nonnative northern pike and smallmouth bass, making it a popular fishery for anglers from across Colorado.
But the same nonnatives that attract anglers to the reservoir eat the four fish the recovery program is trying to save.
“The objective of this tournament is to suppress these fish, smallmouth bass and northern pike, to reduce the impact of those fish on the Yampa River,” Hebein said.
Hebein said protecting these fish easily approaches philosophical debate but genetic diversity is an important thing to protect.
“A lot of people ask what’s so important about these four fish species… don’t they live somewhere else?” he said. “These fish don’t live anywhere else… These fish are the true natives of the Colorado River Basin… If we don’t recover them here, they won’t be anywhere else.”
Until humans have a better understanding of DNA and what makes us tick, it is crucial to preserve all iterations of life, Hebein said.
“Until we can figure that out, we really need to conserve the DNA of all these living organisms because we don’t know how to make it,” he said.
But some are still opposed to a tournament that would potentially reduce the fishery in Elkhead Reservoir.
Steve Smith, Craig local and longtime Elkhead angler, had a sign posted in protest of the tournament at the turn off to the launch ramp.
“This is one of the closest lakes that we can fish,” he said. “It’s been holding it’s own for crappie or pike or bluegill but now they want to eliminate or lower the number of smallmouth or pike.”
Despite their differences, Smith and CPW officials were able to interact with respect. Smith understands that CPW has objectives to complete and CPW officials understand Smith’s passion for his hometown fishery.
Hebein said CPW is not out to kill the fishery, like many locals believe.
“We’re here to turn this lake into a far better fishery but to do that we have to suppress the numbers of big predators,” he said.
Hebein and CPW spokesman Mike Porras both said that without their efforts, Endangered Species Act compliance would be out the window and federal intrusion into local affairs would be even greater.
“Every water user would be compelled to deal with a Section 7 consultation with the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) on how their use of water would not impact the endangered fish,” he said. “That’s a lot of work and a lot of paperwork and that’s the reason behind why the recovery program has been such a valuable thing.”
Out of all the anglers interviewed by the Craig Daily Press on Saturday, only one was from Craig, and a gentleman from the Denver area joined him
The rest of the fishermen were from Grand Junction, Eagle or Rifle.
The tournament ends on June 19 with daily prizes for smallest, biggest and most fish caught. Catching a fish with a tag enters anglers into a raffle for big prizes, with the top prize being a new boat.
“The sooner that we can recover the endangered fish, the sooner we can have some more freedom,” said Hebein. “I’d like to encourage everyone to think about the recovery program and the value it has presented in everyone’s lives. How can we get together, recover the fish and move on from there?”
…the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s latest high-priority objective — reducing or eliminating nonnative predators from Elkhead Reservoir — has local fisherman in an uproar.
Elkhead Reservoir, which averages 130,000 people visiting during recreation days per year, is home to nonnative northern pike and smallmouth bass, making it a popular fishery for anglers from across Colorado.
But the same nonnatives that attract anglers to the reservoir are a threat to the four fish the recovery program is trying to save — the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker…
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recover Program Director Tom Chart said right now, the program’s biggest obstacle is managing nonnative fish, which prey on endangered fish and prevent populations from thriving.
“The greatest threat that we are dealing with right now is these nonnative, predatory fish,” he said.
Chart said that after ramping up attempts to control nonnatives living in the river, it has been become increasingly clear that source populations must be dealt with.
“Elkhead, unfortunately, I understand is a prime fishing location for some of the locals out there, but the amount of escapement of smallmouth bass and northern pike (into the Yampa River) is just intolerable,” he said.
Longtime fisher and Craig resident Burt Clements said he understands that under federal law the fish need to be recovered, but he doesn’t think Elkhead is the problem and rather than eradicating nonnatives, other approaches should be the priority.
“Until they start a real stocking program in the upper Yampa with adult pike minnow, they probably will not recover them in the Yampa River,” he said.
In 2015, the program spent about $1 million on recovery projects in the Yampa River, according to recovery program deputy director Angela Kantola. Efforts did include shocking nonnative fish in the Yampa.
“That total certainly exceeds $1 million when support activities (outreach and program management) for Yampa Basin projects are included,” Kantola wrote in an email.
To address the root of the nonnative problem — Elkhead Reservoir — the recovery program is installing a net on the reservoir to help prevent spillage of predatory nonnatives into the Yampa where the endangered fish live and thrive.
The cost of installation, which is scheduled for this fall, is estimated at $1.2 million. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is contributing $500,000 and the rest of the funding comes from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on behalf of the recovery program.
The program also is recruiting civilians for assistance.
A nine-day fishing tournament offering prizes totaling about $6,000 is scheduled to recruit anglers for the purpose of purging the lake of pike and smallmouth.
The tournament begins Saturday and ends June 19. The boat ramp will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. but anglers are welcome to stay on the reservoir overnight. If a participant catches a tagged fish, they are entered in a drawing for the top prizes, including a brand-new boat.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Senior Aquatic Biologist Sherman Hebein said the initial plan was to lower water levels in the lake and poison the fish population with rotenone. However, that approach turned out to be unpopular and unfeasible.
“What we decided was to actually get the public to assist us with our efforts through a tournament,” he said. “I’m prepared to give away prizes, significant prizes, to get the public involved in this project.”
Despite the hefty prizes, local fishermen are boycotting the tournament.
Craig resident Steve Smith said he has been fishing Elkhead Reservoir since it was opened and he can’t support a “kill tournament.”
“It’s like the WildEarth Guardians and the coal mines,” he said. “This is us going against the government.”
Smith said reducing the fishery at Elkhead would have a negative economic impact on Craig.
“Craig will lose some revenue because fisherman won’t come from all over,” he said. “The lake, as it was for the last few years, has been a destiny lake where people come to fish.”
Allen Hischke, another Craig local, expressed concerns about what he sees as intrusive and unnecessary and government involvement. His thoughts are that Elkhead should be left alone.
The recovery program’s nonnative fish coordinator Kevin McAbee said providing Section 7 compliance is where most of the general population should recognize the importance of the program.
“The success of our program is the Endangered Species Act compliance mechanism for all of these water development projects,” said McAbee. “If we didn’t work together to recover these fish then every time that water development wanted to take place anywhere in the Colorado River Basin, it was going to be a fairly contentious endangered species act consultation,”
Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid said he supports the local fishermen and hopes for a reasonable compromise ensuring a successful recovery and the preservation of Elkhead’s fishery.
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:
Residents of Craig and the surrounding areas will have the opportunity to discuss the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and Elkhead Reservoir fish management with several key partners during an open house, Thursday, Feb. 5, beginning at 6 p.m. at Craig City Hall, 300 West 4th Street.
The open house format will allow program representatives to answer questions and provide information about the multi-faceted program and its goals of protecting four endangered native fish – the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail and razorback sucker – found only in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
“People who attend will learn what they can do to help us achieve what we all want, that is to bring this recovery effort to a successful conclusion,” said Senior Aquatic Biologist Sherman Hebein of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We understand that people have questions and concerns, so we welcome this opportunity.”
Among the various topics up for discussion will be how Elkhead Reservoir’s predominantly non-native fishery affects local native fish populations, and actions that Recovery Program partners are taking to manage non-native fish populations in the Yampa River and throughout the upper Colorado River basin.
According to principal investigators working on native fish recovery, escapement of non-native fish such as northern pike and smallmouth bass, found in significant numbers in Elkhead Reservoir and several other waters in Western Colorado, are among the primary obstacles to the full recovery of the endangered fish.
“Non-native fish often escape from reservoirs, ponds and other bodies of water into rivers where they not only compete with natives for available habitat, they also eat them,” said Hebein. “Based on years of data analysis, we have determined that non-native predators are the main reason we have yet to fully recover our native fish populations. It’s a major problem that we can overcome, but it will take significant effort from the partners and cooperation from the public.”
Recent reports that the reservoir might be drained and chemically reclaimed to remove the non-natives led to much discussion and concern in the community; however, at a joint workshop with Moffat County Commissioners and the Craig City Council last December, Hebein announced that CPW and its partners are implementing the installation of a net across the reservoir’s spillway to reduce the number of northern pike and smallmouth bass that escape into the Yampa River. Netting the spillway would provide time to implement other non-chemical management actions to reduce the numbers of smallmouth bass and northern pike in the reservoir.
“We anticipate that there will be many questions about the net and Elkhead’s future,” said Hebein. “We look forward to the opportunity to explain the complexities of the issue to the public.”
Hebein says that the public will have the opportunity to provide both written and verbal comments during the meeting.
Here’s a post arguing to keep the Yampa River riparian system as a baseline for a healthy river from Susan Bruce writing for the Earth Island Journal. Here’s an excerpt:
Governor John Hickenlooper’s directive to the Colorado Water Conservation Board earlier this year to create a Colorado Water Plan by 2015 has put the Yampa, which has the second largest watershed in the state, under the spotlight.
Efforts to dam the Yampa go back to the proposed construction of Echo Park Dam, which Congress vetoed in 1952, bowing to a groundswell of public outcry led by David Brower, then with the Sierra Club. But in a compromise he later regretted, Brower supported the construction of two other dams: Glen Canyon on the Colorado River and Flaming Gorge on the Green River. The Green and Yampa rivers used to have similar flows and ecosystems. The construction of the Flaming Gorge Dam in 1962 modified the Green’s hydrograph, reducing sediment flow by half and tapering its seasonal fluctuations to a slower, more consistent flow, opening the way for invasive species like the tamarisk tree to crowd out native ones.
More recently, in 2006, there was a proposal to build a reservoir near Maybell, CO, and pump water from the Yampa to a reservoir about 230 miles away for municipal and agricultural use on the Front Range. But the plan was scrapped due to environmental and cost concerns; the reservoir would have cost between $3 billion and $5 billion.
The oil and gas industry is also eyeing the Yampa. Shell Oil had plans to pump about 8 percent of the Yampa’s high-water flow to fill a 1,000-acre reservoir, but it shelved the proposal in 2010, citing a slowdown of its oil-shale development program. Still, oil production in Colorado is at its highest level since 1957 and gas production at an all-time high. While industrial and municipal water needs are projected to increase with population growth, the largest water user, agriculture, will continue to divert the lion’s share of Colorado’s water, around 80 percent. All of which mean the pressure to suck up Yampa’s water is only going to grow.
The most unique characteristic of the Yampa is its wild and unimpeded flow, in particular the extensive spring flooding that washes away sediment, giving the river its brownish hue. This “river dance” helps establish new streamside forests, wetlands, and sandy beaches, as well as shallows that support species like the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker. By late fall, the water barely covers the riverbed in some stretches…
The rafting industry, which contributes more than $150 million to Colorado’s economy, has a strong voice when it comes to the Yampa’s future. Although damming the Yampa would provide a more consistent flow over a longer season, George Wendt – founder of OARS, the largest rafting company in the world – speaks for most outfitters when he says he would rather see the Yampa retain its natural state.
Conservationists also argue that the Yampa’s full flow helps meet Colorado’s legal obligation to provide water to the seven states within the Colorado Basin and Mexico. Measures being considered to protect the Yampa include an instream flow appropriation by the Colorado Water Conservation Board that would reserve Yampa’s water for the natural function of rivers, and a Wild and Scenic River designation by Congress.
Many proponents of keeping the Yampa wild point to its value as a baseline – an ecosystem naturally in balance. “If things go awry on dammed rivers, which they do, we have a control river, so to speak,” says Kent Vertrees of The Friends of the Yampa. “Keeping the last wild river in the Colorado Basin intact is important to a healthy environment and so future generations can experience in situ millions of years of history little changed by man.”
“A relatively high volume of water will be released (about 350 cubic-feet-per-second) from Elkhead for four days to support a sustained flow of about 1,000 cfs in the Yampa River at Maybell, downstream of Craig,” Fish and Wildlife officials announced in the release. “The released water will take about 24 hours to reach Maybell, and flows will return to pre-release levels at Maybell by Aug. 24.
“All releases will be made through the dam outlets that are screened to prevent the escapement of nonnative fish.”
The reservoir level is expected to drop 3 feet during the release period and stabilize by the middle of next week, according to the release. There will be no affects to boat or angler access to the reservoir.