Local recovery efforts 'mixed bag'

Endangered Species Act reaches 30-year mark

Whether repelling to a peregrine falcon's eyrie to gather eggs or incubating bonytail chub in a fish hatchery, several government agencies are striving to help endangered species recover in Moffat County.

But as this December marks the 30-year anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, David Whitman, Dinosaur National Monument Chief Naturalist, described the recovery efforts for the nine endangered species in the Moffat County as "sort of a mixed bag."

For example, in Dinosaur National Monument, as well as nationwide, the peregrine falcon has recovered so well that it has been removed from the endangered species list.

At the same time, the bonytail chub only exists because the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) incubates them in fish hatcheries.

As of October, the bald eagle, Canada lynx and Mexican spotted owl were listed as threatened species. The black-footed ferret, bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker and whooping crane were listed as endangered.

The difference between threatened and endangered is that the USFWS has more flexibility when protecting an endangered animal, said Al Pfister, Assistant Field Supervisor for the USFWS.

The four fish species are priority recovery species in the county, because habitat deemed critical to their survival is found in the Yampa and Green Rivers.

These fish thrived when spring snow thaws flooded the rivers and created flood plains, in which the fish could spawn, and baby fish could eat the plentiful plankton, safe from predators.

But now levies keep the riverbanks from flooding, and the concurrent loss of habitat, coupled with the threat of non-native predatory species such as the northern pike, has decimated these fish populations.

To mitigate these problems, the USFWS is working to restore wet plains. Removing pike, small-mouth bass and channel catfish, all popular game fish, from the Yampa and Green River, and moving them to ponds helps this effort.

But the transplanting of non-native fish has some local fishermen concerned.

Mick Havrilla, an avid angler and Craig resident, said he appreciates the attention the threatened fish have attracted to the Yampa River, but he doesn't like to see popular game fish be removed.

"One thing I look at is, because of the effort to save these species, people are keeping the Yampa a living river," Havrilla said. "But fish move, travel in other drainages, and at some point they could end up here. To me, it's an eventuality."

It's a puzzling dilemma, because fish such as the bonytail, which Whitman described as the "worst off" of the four endangered species, have absolutely no foundation in the rivers at this time. And it seems that as long as voracious predators such as the northern pike live in the bonytail's native habitat, the bonytail will be hard pressed to reestablish itself.

Whitman said that in Dinosaur National Monument, two razorback sucker-spawning grounds have been documented in the Green River, and one pikeminnow spawning ground has been found in the Yampa River. That's the only known pikeminnow spawning ground in the Colorado River System.

Reproduction in the wild is a vital step in species recovery, and it's often a challenging one.

In the past two years, 20 to 30 black-footed ferrets, one of the rarest mammals in North America, believed to have been killed in large numbers by poison intended for prairie dogs, have been released in the Bureau of Land Management's Little Snake Resource Area, near Maybell. Pfister said the recovery effort there has been good, but that none of the released animals have reproduced.

That's in large part a function of the small number of animals that have been released. Due to scant availability at rearing facilities, the USFWS can't release any more animals than that.

Pfister said some surveys have followed the release of the black-footed ferret, but statistics on the survival rate of the ferret were unavailable.

The peregrine falcon and the bald eagle have had more success in Moffat County than other species.

Whitman said that in Dinosaur National Monument, park officials aided the recovery of the falcon by repelling to falcon eyries, removing the falcon eggs, and replacing them with dummies. The eggs were then taken to Boise, Idaho, where they were incubated, hatched, and the chicks were raised for several weeks.

When the eggs were replaced, the parents accepted the chicks without ever realizing they were gone, and through this manner chick fatality was avoided. The territory the baby birds were placed in was imprinted in their memory, so as mature adults they returned to Dinosaur to reproduce.

About 15 mating pairs currently live in Dinosaur. Whitman called that a fairly high number.

Bald Eagles have also successfully recovered in the county, and can be found in Brown's Park. Suzanne Halverson, Assistant Refuge Manager, said that she has spent hours watching from an overlook by Vermillion Creek, south towards Dinosaur's Gates of Ladore, and has counted 15 bald eagles wintering in the park.

She said the eagles like to feed on the fish and ducks in the Green River, and the cottonwoods in the valley make fine perches for them.

The recovery of both the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon was aided by the prohibition of the pesticide DDT. Even after an animal population has recovered, it is monitored for five years before being removed from the endangered species list.

Currently, 1,263 species are protected under the Endangered Species Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon in December 1973.

Since President George W. Bush took office in 2001, only 25 species have been added to the list, compared to an average of 55 species added per year by the Clinton administration, and 64 species per year by the first Bush administration.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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