Elkhead Reservoir’s future uncertain as non-native fish populate Northwest Colorado
Craig — Colorado Parks and Wildlife is looking at different ways to manage four endangered fish along the Yampa River, and Elkhead Reservoir is the focus of a discussion in which officials are looking at removing non-native fish and draining the 900-acre body of water located in Moffat County.
On Friday, several groups who have a stake in Elkhead Reservoir will meet at Craig Station to converse about various options for maintaining the reservoir and the endangered fish in the Yampa.
It’s the first of several meetings slated to take place on the issue, and although the public is not invited to the meeting, the media — including the Craig Daily Press and KRAI radio — will attend in order to keep the public abreast of the debate.
Non-native issues at Elkhead
Elkhead is home to non-native fish species, the northern pike and the small-mouth bass, that are seeping out of reservoir’s spill gates into the Yampa River and eating the endangered fish, making it difficult for Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain a healthy number of fish that are on the endangered species list.
The non-native fish were introduced to Elkhead in the 1970s, and it’s taken years to help them populate the reservoir, which has made it a world-class fishery, said Burt Clements, who has spent nearly three decades monitoring the fish activity in Moffat County.
Clements used to be the president of the Yampa Valley Bass Masters Association, hosting fishing competitions at Elkhead and bringing tourism to Northwest Colorado.
“My big thing is they cannot prove that the fish in Elkhead is affecting the fish in the river,” Clements said.
Parks and Wildlife officials disagree.
Sherman Hebein, senior aquatic biologist for the Northwest region of Parks and Wildlife, said he and his team have removed many non-native fish in the Yampa. The number of non-natives collected proves that those fish are increasing in numbers as the endangered fish population declines.
Parks and Wildlife thinks that non-natives are breaching the Yampa through Elkhead Reservoir’s spillway each year. Hebein highlighted that the reservoir hasn’t spilled into the Yampa in the past two years, however, because it has spilled in years past, the non-natives continue to reproduce and eat the progeny (younger fish) of the endangered species.
Additionally, the larger non-native fish eat and attack the natives, he said.
The four endangered fish include the bonytail, humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker, which were put on the Endangered Species Recovery Program in 1988.
“The Colorado pikeminnow population estimates have been declining precipitously over the past few years,” Hebein said. “We were hoping to down list the Colorado pikeminnow in 2015. If we don’t down list it, that means things aren’t going very well.”
And they’re not, as the numbers are declining, putting pressure on the Parks and Wildlife to boost the population — a task that’s difficult to achieve when non-native fish eat endangered species.
Parks and Wildlife is poised to increase those numbers and has to answer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is a branch of the federal government that controls the listing of species throughout the United States.
Options for Elkhead Reservoir
Parks and Wildlife officials are looking at introducing a chemical called rotenone to Elkhead Reservoir that basically interferes with the fishes’ ability to obtain energy from oxygen. It essentially would eliminate their population in the lake.
In order to make the task successful, Parks and Wildlife would have to drain the reservoir to low levels, administer the rotenone, kill the fish and clean them up. After the chemical is applied, officials detoxify the water by applying potassium permanganate to detoxify the rotenone.
Rotenone is obtained from trees in Central and South America and does not threaten the quality of water or the plant life that exists in the reservoir. It only targets the fish.
“What we purchase is a processed chemical that is poisonous to fish, and we apply it by one part per million,” Hebein said. “That will effectively remove all the fish from the water. The objective would be to remove all the fish so that we don’t have to deal with escapement anymore.”
The rotenone idea is extremely unpopular to fishermen, Craig city officials, tourism agencies and those who own water rights at Elkhead Reservoir.
“I don’t want them to drain it,” Craig Mayor Terry Carwile said. “I want them to do something a little different. I would like the Fish and Wildlife Service to put the brakes on this thing and say, ‘The heck with this poisoning.’’’
Another option is to put a screen over the spillway; something that Hebein doesn’t think completely will eradicate the problem.
“We have been working on screening options for the spillway channel,” Hebein said. “That is an ongoing activity that might bear some fruit. We need to be aware of dam safety. Whatever screen we use, it has to function without compromising dam safety.”
However, he thinks eggs and fish fry still would get through a screen, and he is leaning more toward the rotenone option at this point in time, he said.
If that’s the route Parks and Wildlife takes, it will need buy-in from various entities, including the public.
“I’m looking at the impact on the community. That’s water that belongs to somebody else,” Carwile said.
Reservoir water rights and upcoming meetings
Four groups own water rights at Elkhead — the city of Craig, Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Fish Recovery Program and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which owns and operates Craig Station.
If Parks and Wildlife were to drain and poison the reservoir, it would need to have permission from all of those groups, which is why a meeting was called to take place Friday.
“How do we keep the people that own water in Elkhead whole if we lower the water surface elevation?” Hebein asked. “They have an expectation that they’re going to get that water. If there’s no water, what are we going to do?”
Parks and Wildlife is looking to take action this fall.
“What we’re aiming for is some type of answer that will meet everybody’s needs,” said Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the Colorado River District. “Craig has indicated pretty clearly that they have some issues. We don’t really want to do something that will upset Craig. This is a very big issue for anyone who uses water in the state of Colorado.”
After the Friday meeting, all concerned groups will host public meetings to get input from residents.
Economic impact and tourism
Last year, nearly 114,000 people visited Elkhead, not only for fishing but also for camping, hiking and sightseeing, according to Parks and Widlife numbers.
Previous Parks and Wildlife studies have shown that those who visit Elkhead spend in excess of $6 million in and around Craig each year.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife is driving this and telling Parks and Wildlife what must be done.
The reservoir offers motorized recreation, winter recreation, wildlife viewing, picnicking and camping to visitors.
It’s also where Clements and his longtime friend Norm Fedde spend their retirement days, fishing small- and large-mouth bass, northern pike and blue gill in Elkhead Reservoir.
“You’d be surprised how many people are going to be upset about this,” Fedde said. “This lake is just now really good fishing. We don’t have 10 years for them to” rebuild the fishery in Elkhead.
The two men want to live out their last years fishing the reservoir without having to wait for the state to rebuild the fishery.
Contact Noelle Leavitt Riley at 970-875-1790 or nriley@CraigDailyPress.com.