Fishing for a native-stocked river

Fish recovery group meets with residents about shocking program

During the past three years of shocking fish to remove nonnative species from the Yampa River, only two of the endangered Colorado pikeminnow have been spotted upriver from Craig, said Sam Finney with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The goal of many of the speakers at Monday's community update held by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program is to see that number increase.

Established in 1988, the recovery program is attempting to replenish the upper Colorado River basin, including the Yampa River, with humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

The area from Craig to the Dinosaur National Monument is considered critical habitat for the recovery of the four species of fish, once found in abundance in the Colorado, Yampa and Green rivers.

"The goal is to have 20 to 30 percent of the fish population made up of native or endangered fish," said Pat Nelson, the nonnative fish and habitat coordinator for the program. "Now, we are at 1 percent of the population in this portion of the Yampa River."

The biggest threat to the recovery of the native fish is the increasing numbers of bass and pike, which Nelson calls "top-level predators."

In the past three years, 4,000 pike have been removed from the river and relocated, Nelson said. About the same number of bass has also been taken out of the Yampa River.

Pike are being relocated to the pond at Loudy-Simpson Park, and bass were being taken to Elkhead Reservoir until the failure of the outlet screen in spring 2006.

Fish and wildlife service officials knew they would be hearing from the sport fishing public about some of their decisions, and the crowd at the Holiday Inn was more than willing to express its concerns.

"The fish that were turned out of (Elkhead Reservoir) when the screens failed this spring went downstream and into the critical habitat area," said Burt Clements, of Craig. "They were losing the fish that they were trying to keep."

Officials with the recovery program were equally frustrated by the failure of the screens at the reservoir construction project.

"The escape of bass, bluegill and crappie set us back," Nelson said about the fish that escaped the reservoir, some after being relocated there from the river.

Dan Birch with the Colorado River Water Conservation District said that it was the district's responsibility to screen the outlet from the reservoir, but debris and a large number of fish blocked the screens, which collapsed when the spring runoff reached 1,000 cubic feet per second.

Clements said that Elkhead Reservoir was a good fishing spot before the dam project began, and he hopes he lives long enough to see it recover.

John Campbell, of Craig, questioned the practice of stocking one species of nonnative fish -- trout -- while removing another from the river. He also wondered whether the shocking process was damaging the native fish population.

Nelson said that there are 43 species of nonnative fish in the upper basin of the Colorado River, and the plans are to only remove bass and pike at this point. While the recovery program has them stocking squawfish in the Colorado, they have not yet stocked the Yampa with the endangered species.

The process of removing pike from the Yampa River seems to be working, Nelson said. In 2004, Fish and Wildlife staff were finding 13 pike per mile, compared to eight pike per mile this year. The target goal is to reach three pike per mile, Nelson said.

Ned Miller, sportsman information specialist with the Craig Chamber of Commerce, said he would just like to see the river return to fish populations he recalls from fishing in the 1970s.

"Thirty years ago, you could catch your limit between (Yampa Valley) Golf Course and Iles Mountain on one float trip," Miller said.

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com.

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