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Endangered fish recovery sparks controversy with local anglers

Patrick Kelly
Elkhead Reservoir in Moffat County is a popular warm-water fishery but the small mouth bass and northern pike that make it so attractive to anglers are a major threat to endangered native species.
Patrick Kelly

For 28 years, more than a dozen entities have worked together to ensure the future of four prehistoric fish in the Colorado River Basin.

Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, along with a multitude of federal agencies and private organizations formed the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program in 1988 to provide Endangered Species Act compliance and keep water development projects closer to the local level.

But the recovery program’s latest high-priority objective — reducing or eliminating nonnative predators from Elkhead Reservoir in Moffat County — has local fisherman in an uproar.

Elkhead Reservoir, which averages 130,000 days of recreational use each year, is home to nonnative northern pike and smallmouth bass, making it a popular fishery for anglers from across Colorado.

However, the same nonnatives that attract anglers to the reservoir tend to spill into the Yampa River and 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 native populations from thriving.

“The greatest threat that we are dealing with right now is these nonnative, predatory fish,” he said.

Longtime angler and Craig resident Burt Clements said he understands that under federal law the fish need to be recovered, but he doesn’t think the nonnatives in Elkhead are the problem.

“Until they start a real stocking program in the upper Yampa with adult pikeminnow, 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 included shocking nonnative fish on the Yampa.

Since mid-April, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Aquatic Biologist Cory Noble and a crew of seasonal fishery technicians have been electroshock fishing for nonnative fish on the Yampa River.

A typical electroshock fishing excursion consists of three boats — two shock boats that hit both banks on a section of river before delivering their catch to the single chase boat. Each boat usually has a crew of three people.

The shock boats dangle two metal balls hung from the bow into the river to act as the anodes while the boat itself is the cathode. The result is an electric field that stuns the fish, allowing them to be netted by electrofishers.

On the chase boat, length, weight, species and location of where the fish is caught is recorded. Nonnatives are killed with an anesthetic after they’re brought into the boat, and natives are placed back in the river, usually after being tagged.

Chart said despite ramping up attempts to control nonnatives living in the Yampa 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.

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.

Former CPW 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.

In addition to installing a net on the spillway, CPW recruited the help of local anglers by hosting a 9-day fishing tournament with over $6,000 in prizes at Elkhead in mid-June.

“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 locals are more concerned about having a place to fish.

Steve Smith, Craig local and longtime Elkhead angler, was at the turn off to the boat ramp on the first day of the CPW tournament to protest.

“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.”

Hebein said CPW is not trying to kill the reservoir or reduce its recreational value and with the help of local anglers it can become an ever better fishery, just with different fish.

As part of its effort to transition the fishery away from small mouth and northern pike, CPW plans to stock 20,000 large mouth bass in the reservoir in 2016 and local anglers will be recruited to distribute the fish.

CPW spokesman Mike Porras both said that without the recovery progam’s efforts, Endangered Species Act compliance would be out the window and federal intrusion into local affairs would be even greater.

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.

“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.”

Hebein said he would encourage anglers to reflect on the importance of the recovery program, support its efforts and work together to finish the job.

“The sooner that we can recover the endangered fish, the sooner we can have some more freedom,” he said.

Contact Patrick Kelly at 970-875-1795 or Contact Patrick Kelly at 970-875-1795 or pkelly@CraigDailyPress.com or follow him on Twitter @M_PKelly.Contact Patrick Kelly at 970-875-1795 or pkelly@CraigDailyPress.com or follow him on Twitter @M_PKelly.


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