Officials discuss ways to control fish in Elkhead Reservoir, Yampa River | CraigDailyPress.com

Officials discuss ways to control fish in Elkhead Reservoir, Yampa River

Next steps: Hold public meeting, research screening costs

Noelle Leavitt Riley

— A group of concerned residents and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials met at Craig Station last week to discuss options on how to control non-native fish in Elkhead Reservoir that are eating endangered fish along the Yampa River.

Perhaps the largest message Parks and Wildlife tried to convey to the 20 people in attendance was that it's mandated by federal law to protect fish listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Four fish that live in the Yampa are currently on that list — the humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker and the bonytail.

The issue surrounds two fish in Elkhead, the northern pike and the smallmouth bass, that escape the reservoir over the spillway and eat young and mature Colorado pikeminnow, making it difficult for Parks and Wildlife officials to down-list the fish as required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the ESA.

Colorado pikeminnow numbers in the Yampa River have declined to below 200 fish, while northern pike (the predator) have increased to more than 1,600 fish in the Yampa alone, according to figures from Parks and Wildlife.

Elkhead boasts a 900-acre body of water northeast of Craig in Moffat County and is considered a warm-water fishery.

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Three options were discussed at the meeting on how to prevent the non-native fish in Elkhead from seeping into the Yampa:

• Have anglers catch the non-native fish to decrease northern pike and smallmouth bass numbers in the reservoir and the Yampa.

• Put a screen over the spillway of Elkhead Reservoir to help eliminate escapement into the Yampa River.

• Administer the chemical rotenone that would kill all the fish in the reservoir, and restock the reservoir with non-threatening fish after the reservoir filled with spring runoff the following year.

The least popular option was the rotenone, but it was touted widely as the only way to truly control the non-native fish issue at the reservoir.

If Parks and Wildlife officials had anglers eliminate large quantities, it doesn't kill the fish eggs, and the screen on the spillway option won't stop eggs and larvae from getting into the Yampa.

The screen alternative is also the most expensive option of the three, Parks and Wildlife officials said, noting that it could cost upward of $20 million to install a screen at Elkhead.

Parks and Wildlife currently is spending more than $1 million each year to kill non-natives in the Yampa in order to protect the endangered fish.

It would only cost about $100,000 to administer rotenone and clean up the fish at the reservoir, said Sherman Hebein, senior aquatic biologist for the Northwest region of Parks and Wildlife.

If that happened, Parks and Wildlife would drain the reservoir down to a very low level, poison the water — the rotenone chemical is not harmful to the flora and fauna, according to Parks and Wildlife — let the fish die, clean the dead fish off the shores and let the reservoir fill with runoff water the following year.

Officials need to make a swift decision on the Elkhead non-native fish issue and are hoping to administer one of the three options in fall 2015.

"We're seeing this non-native fish issue balloon," said Kevin McAbee, non-native fish coordinator for the upper Colorado River endangered fish recovery program. "They're out there and they consumer a lot of” endangered fish.

The northern pike and the smallmouth bass have extremely high reproductive rates — one female northern pike can carry 100,000 eggs, McAbee said.

"When the conditions are right, these species can put out huge classes of fish," he said.

Another issue is that the Colorado pikeminnow are long-lived fish, and the females don't become mature enough to reproduce until they're 8 or 9 years old, said Tom Chart, director of the Parks and Wildlife recovery program.

Parks and Wildlife presented data that outlined the decline in Colorado pikeminnow numbers and also showed photos of northern pike and smallmouth bass (young and old) eating the endangered fish.

Many in the audience were concerned about how killing the fish with rotenone and draining the reservoir would affect Moffat County recreation.

It essentially would put the reservoir out of commission for nearly nine months, from the fall to the spring.

Bert Clements, a longtime fisher of the reservoir and former member of the Yampa Valley Bass Masters Association, was against the rotenone and asked Parks and Wildlife to come up with more solid figures on how much a spillway screen would cost.

"You're never going to get on top of this” issue, Clements said to Parks and Wildlife. He also asked how Parks and Wildlife could be sure that the non-natives in Elkhead were causing the decline in of endangered fish in the Yampa.

Parks and Wildlife has been tagging fish in the Yampa and at Elkhead for several years and showed an escapement study outlining the decline.

Roughly 4,934 smallmouth bass were tagged from 2003 to 2009 in Elkhead, and Parks and Wildlife found that 1,339 of the tagged fish had escaped back into the Yampa River by the end of 2010.

If rotenone is administered, Parks and Wildlife would restock the reservoir with non-threatening, non-native fish, including tiger muskie, bluegill, black crappie, largemouth bass, palmetto bass and yellow perch.

"We'll stock the fish until that fishery is back to where it is," Hebein said.

Parks and Wildlife officials said it would take roughly three to five years to make Elkhead a great fishery again.

Clements was not satisfied, saying he may not have that much time on Earth and that the fish they want to restock the reservoir with are not as fun to catch as the smallmouth bass.

Another concern brought up was that the water at Elkhead is used as emergency backup water for the city of Craig and Craig Station.

Parks and Wildlife ensured that it would find backup water for the entities if they administered the rotenone plan.

No elected officials were at the meeting, nor members of the public. However, Craig Station representatives and Craig City Manager Jim Ferree were in attendence.

"I think we should explore the screening first," Ferree told the Daily Press. "The screening option should be fully explored first, and that sounds like the next step. Also, the CPW needs to detail the restocking plan if the screen turns out to be not a viable option."

Nothing is set in stone, and the discussion is in preliminary stages.

Parks and Wildlife plans to have a series of meetings with elected officials and the public within the next year.

Contact Noelle Leavitt Riley at 970-875-1790 or nriley@CraigDailyPress.com.