The Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to remove northern pike from the Yampa River. They are stocking them into area wildlife ponds, but not into Elkhead Reservoir.
One holdup in stocking Elkhead Reservoir with pike from the Yampa River is the absence of a retaining screen to keep them from once again reaching the river. A screen would reduce the number of fish that could make their way down the spillway and into the Yampa River.
"To put a screen into Elkhead Reservoir would cost somewhere between $900,000 and $1 million," Craig City Councilor and fisherman Don Jones said. "And as it stands right now, we are not even sure that would keep the pike from re-entering the river. The DOW has never done a study to find out just exactly how many fish that would deter, so that is something that we are going to want to look into."
The pike that now inhabit the Yampa River and dominate the environment were stocked in Elkhead Reservoir when it was first built, leading to their population boom in the Yampa River.
That population explosion has expanded the pike's territory all the way to the Green River in Utah and Stagecoach Reservoir, south of Steamboat.
"I have no idea how they could make their way all the way to Stagecoach," Jones said. "Unless someone stuck them in a bucket and transported them there, it doesn't make much sense. They have taken over that river, though, and in a rather large way."
The pike are being removed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as a way of enforcing the Endangered Species Act, which protects threatened, natural species that inhabit waters.
Since pike were introduced to the river, they are considered non-native fish, which don't receive the same consideration as native fish. Colorado research biologists originally began stocking the pike with the belief that they would not be able to reproduce at such a high altitude.
The Colorado pike minnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail chub are the species protected under the Endangered Species Act, however, they provide little or no recreational or productive use in the river system. Most of these are considered rough fish, and few are sought after by American fishermen.
"Protecting the future of these fish is part of the Endangered Species Act," Jones said. "It doesn't need to make a lot of sense, but it still has to be enforced."
The four species need protection from the pike, which eat their young, and are now attacking adult fish.
USFWS workers have been shocking fish throughout the Yampa River. The fish captured east of Craig are being placed into the Yampa State Wildlife Area. Fish captured off the Colorado Highway 13 bridge are being transported to Rio Blanco Reservoir.
"They are focusing mainly on the area south of the Highway 13 bridge," Jones said. "Apparently, that is where the main spawning occurs for the endangered species that they are trying to protect."
Shocking and redistribution of pike will continue throughout the summer, however, officials realize that they are up facing an uphill battle.
"It is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to remove all of the pike from the river," said Frank Pfeifer, team leader for the Colorado River Restoration Project in Grand Junction. "All that we can do is make our best effort to reduce the large numbers of pike that continue to threaten the endangered fish."
The pike removal project, started last year, has resulted in the removal of nearly 400 pike in the Yampa River from Juniper Springs to Dinosaur National Monument, a stretch of the river designated critical habitat for the endangered fish. So far this year, biologists have removed more than 100 to Rio Blanco Reservoir. The removal operation is funded by the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program that includes the DOW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Because of the large number of pike estimated in the Yampa River, the pilot project was implemented this year to remove them from their spawning areas in off-channel sloughs connecting to the river in the Yampa State Wildlife Area and The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch. Nearly 200 pike captured in these sections have been tagged and released in the ponds at the Yampa State Wildlife Area. Anglers catching these fish are encouraged to keep them and place the tag in a box provided at the ponds.