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Resurgence on the river: How conservation helped the return of the Colorado River cutthroat trout

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DURANGO, Colo. — When all is said and done, the upper reaches of Hermosa Creek, north of Durango, will have the largest continuous stretch of native Colorado River cutthroat trout in the state.

“In Colorado, we’ve got a religion that we need to bring back the natives,” said Buck Skillen, a member of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. “And this is a big deal.”

The effort to restore Colorado River cutthroat trout in Hermosa Creek dates back to the early 1990s when wildlife managers used a natural waterfall on the creek’s east fork as a protective barrier.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife cleared out non-native species of trout — specifically brook, brown and rainbows — using a short-lived, organic poison known as rotenone. And in their place, it released Colorado River cutthroat trout, giving the waterway to the native fish for the first time in probably 100 years.

“And we’re going to work real hard to keep it that way,” Skillen said.

RANGE REDUCED DRAMATICALLY
In the late 1880s, Western settlers fished the Colorado River cutthroat trout to the point of extinction. Then, to keep an important food source available, they dumped other species of trout into the cutthroat’s habitat.

The introduction of brook, brown and rainbow trout further exacerbated any chance of a cutthroat revival, because the fish is ill-equipped to compete with the invasive species, which take over rivers through predation and hybridization.

The magnitude of the cutthroat’s loss has never been truly quantified, but its range — which once spanned Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — was dramatically reduced, mostly because of habitat loss, overharvesting and competition with non-native species.

Clay Kampf, a fisheries biologist for the San Juan National Forest, said the best estimates show the Colorado River cutthroat trout is now found in about 14 percent of its historic natural habitat.

Facing the possibility of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listing the Colorado River cutthroat trout as “endangered,” which would bring a host of restrictive protections, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming entered a three-state agreement to lead an aggressive reintroduction program.

“It works well for both parties,” said Jim White, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“This way, the states and local groups have more say in where and how to manage these fish. And it benefits the (Fish & Wildlife Service) because their resources are stretched pretty thin.”

MIXED RESULTS IN WYOMING, UTAH
In the last decade, the state of Wyoming has restored more than 60 miles of Colorado River cutthroat habitat, with most of that occurring in the upper Green River drainage by the town of Big Piney.

There, Mark Smith of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department said the population has been struggling since reintroduction. The fish haven’t spawned early enough, he said, which means they don’t grow big enough to survive winter.

“The turnaround hasn’t been as quick as we would have hoped, but we’re getting there,” Smith said.

“We’re certainly making gains and going in the right direction.”

In Utah, the program has been wildly successful, with hundreds of miles of streams restored with their native species of trout, said Randy Oplinger of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Oplinger said Utah has been the most ambitious of the three states, likely because of the fact many projects are located on federal lands managed by agencies open to large-scale restoration efforts.

This year alone, the department plans to restore 75 miles of cutthroat habitat within the Colorado River basin. And Oplinger said trout populations tend to fair well throughout the river system.

“We started having a policy of go big or don’t do it at all,” Oplinger said. “And there’s still a lot of room for us to do more work.” The state of Colorado has started numerous restoration projects, and the effort is ongoing, resulting in about 890 miles of streams containing Colorado River cutthroat trout. But still, that’s only about 7 percent of its historic range.

HERMOSA PROJECT CLOSE TO COMPLETION
Once a final barrier is constructed this summer on Hermosa Creek, just below its confluence with the east fork, an effort to dedicate more than 23 miles solely to the cutthroat trout will almost be complete.

Two decades ago, Hermosa Creek was recognized as an ideal place for a restoration project because of the creek’s outstanding water quality and because of its easy accessibility through Forest Service Road 578, which runs behind Purgatory Resort.

After the waterfall near Sig Creek Campground was used as a natural blockade from non-native intrusion in the early 1990s, two more human-made barriers were built in 2007 and 2013.

This summer, the U.S. Forest Service will begin construction on the final barrier at the Hermosa-east fork confluence to safeguard the waters above the blockade for the Colorado River cutthroat.

CPW’s White said that in the segments of the creek that have already been repopulated with cutthroat, population trends are encouraging. He said a recent sweep a few years ago found about 400 to 600 fish per mile.

“Populations above 400 fish per mile are usually ranked in the good to excellent category,” White said. “We’ve seen natural reproduction … very shortly after that project on the main stem (of Hermosa) was completed.”

PROTECTING THE CUTTHROAT
With a successful stretch of river returned to its native species, wildlife managers are expecting Hermosa Creek to get a lot of use from excited anglers.

As a result, a strict catch-and-release policy is on that section of river, White said, and there are other measures, such as habitat improvement and limiting bank erosion, that the agencies can take to protect the fish.

Andy McKinley, an employee with Duranglers, said anglers from all over the country come to this portion of Southwest Colorado to fish in Hermosa Creek’s waters.

“That’s a big draw for us, for sure,” McKinley said. “Some people put a big importance on catching native fish. I think it hearkens back to a time before mankind had a huge impact on the area.”

The quest to set right altered habitats continues to have strong cultural and ecological justifications, said Noah Greenwald of the Centers for Biological Diversity.

“We’re taking away what makes places like Colorado unique and special,” he said. “And we’re likely impacting other species when we replace a native with a non-native. It’s part of this larger extinction crisis.”

The Hermosa Creek restoration project is a coordinated effort between the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, as well as Trout Unlimited, which in total have spent more than a $1 million, Kampf said.

It will take a few more years for the waters upstream of the forthcoming barrier to carry only cutthroats, as non-natives still need to be removed, but Kampf said it will be worth the wait.
“I think the whole picture will finally be realized,” he said.
___
Information from: Durango Herald, http://www.durangoherald.com

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Colorado officials to focus on treatment, enforcement to curb heroin epidemic

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Colorado officials said Tuesday that they hope a two-fold approach will prevent the growth of the state’s heroin epidemic.

Federal and state officials announced plans to focus on prosecuting dealers and use local law enforcement to link people addicted to the drug to treatment options.

According to an updated report also released Tuesday, 228 people died in Colorado in 2016 from heroin overdoses. That’s an increase of 43 percent compared to 2015, when 160 heroin overdose deaths were reported.

Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said his office is working with the Drug Enforcement Agency and local prosecutors to bring federal charges against traffickers of heroin, fentanyl and other dangerous drugs. Federal prosecutions can lead to longer sentences and those convicted serve time in far-flung federal prisons rather than state prisons, sending a warning to other dealers, Troyer said.

“This is not a mass incarceration argument,” Troyer said. “This is an exacting, targeting argument on those causing the most harm.”

The second half of the strategy will encourage local law enforcement to help people addicted to the drug get access to treatment through a state hotline.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said local law enforcement quickly learn to recognize the difference between someone who is dealing and someone who is caught in the grip of addiction.

“We’re doing something that we haven’t done in a long time,” Spurlock said. “And that is go after the pushers but have an equally opposing force on the user and helping those folks get off.”

Under the new plan, officers can contact the hotline directly or encourage people with addiction to use it as a resource.

State health officials said the hotline operators walk callers through the process of finding treatment options.

The effort doesn’t have any new financial backing. Officials with the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Area program said they will direct $4 million in existing funds toward law enforcement task forces aggressively targeting heroin dealers.

“We don’t want to become an East coast, a West Virginia or Ohio,” said Tom Gorman, director of the program. “We want to take a proactive approach and say we want to stop this in Colorado.”

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Denver seeks cannabis tax hike to ease housing crisis

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Denver officials have unveiled a plan that would have marijuana buyers help pay for an expansion of the city’s 10-year, $150 million affordable housing fund.

The Denver Post reports Mayor Michael Hancock and other city officials on Monday unveiled the proposal that, if approved, would increase the city’s 3.5 percent special tax on recreational marijuana sales to 5.5 percent.

The tax hike requires only council approval since Denver voters capped the special local tax at 15 percent when they approved it in 2013.

The city’s shorter-term plan is to subsidize the building or preservation of 3,000 income-restricted apartments and other housing units in the next five years. The Denver Post reports that the proposal would allow the city to up its goal of 3,000 apartments to 6,400.

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Colorado teachers takeover Capitol demanding better school funding

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Hundreds of public school teachers swarmed the Colorado state Capitol on Monday, shuttering one suburban Denver school district to demand better salaries, as lawmakers were set to debate a pension reform measure that would cut retirement benefits and take-home pay.

With the demonstrations, Colorado educators join peers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona who have staged strikes or high-profile protests in recent weeks to draw attention to what teachers unions see as a growing crisis in the profession.

In Colorado the need is especially stark – and apparently at odds with a state economy that ranks among the nation’s best. The average teacher salary – $46,155 in 2016 -ranks 46th among states and Washington, D.C., according to the latest figures from the National Education Association.

By another metric, Colorado’s dead last. The Education Law Center, an advocacy group, said this year that Colorado’s teacher salaries are the worst in the nation “when compared to professionals with similar education levels.”

Teachers rallied in and outside the building Monday, holding signs and chanting slogans including “You left me no choice. I have to use my teacher voice.” They drew honks from passing cars before heading inside, where their cheers and songs resonated throughout the Golden Dome, drawing lawmakers out of their respective chambers to investigate the noise.

Washington, D.C., native Callie Gonyea, who is in her second year teaching at Ellis Elementary School in Denver, said she was surprised to learn that Colorado spending was so far below the national average given the number of people moving to the state and the millions of dollars raised in taxes on legalized marijuana.

“There’s no reason we should be down there,” said the second-grade teacher, who walked outside the Capitol holding a sign that said “We(e’)d like the weed money, man.”

Gonyea said she would like to see more funding to pay for mental health treatment at her school, which has one full-time psychologist. She said her class alone has three students who would benefit from daily check-ins with the therapist.

While recent teacher protests have come in firmly red states, Colorado has a Democratic governor and a Legislature split between Democrats and Republicans, but it has some of the strictest spending limits in the country thanks to a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1992, and all tax hikes require voter approval.

Education advocates have filed statewide ballot measures this year to raise revenue for schools, but past attempts have repeatedly been rejected by voters.

It’s not clear if Colorado’s activism could be a sign of protests spreading to more Democratic-leaning states. There are two blue states are in the bottom half of per pupil spending with Colorado — California at 35 and Oregon at 36.

Monday’s demonstration was organized by the state’s largest teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, which estimated the morning crowd at 400. Englewood Schools Superintendent Wendy Rubin said that over 70 percent of the district’s faculty was expected to be absent so classes were cancelled Monday.

School funding has been at the forefront of the state’s spending fights for years, but organizers said this year’s lobbying day drew additional interest in light of recent demonstrations across the country.

Democratic lawmakers cheered the protests on Monday, stopping to pose for selfies with the teachers. But Republicans questioned the timing of the demonstrations in a year that lawmakers are expected to increase K-12 funding by the largest amount in recent memory.

“As a lifelong educator — I was in education for 40 years — I can see what the concerns are, but quite frankly this year they’re totally unfounded,” said state Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida. “I find it kind of ironic that we have the stirring up of the CEA troops and bringing them to the Capitol today when we’re considering a school finance bill this year which has the biggest increase since 2008.”

Colorado currently underfunds its schools by $822 million annually, pinching rural areas in particular, where school districts face teacher shortages. Lawmakers in next year’s budget plan to “buy down” the annual amount owed to schools by $150 million, and boost per-pupil spending by 6 percent. It’s unclear if the additional funding will result in lasting raises in the poorest districts, where superintendents complain of losing teachers to places like Walmart.

A sweeping pension reform effort moving through the Legislature could require districts and teachers alike to contribute more to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, which faces an unfunded debt of at least $32 billion. And a property-tax limiting provision of the state constitution is expected to trigger cuts to local school funding in 2019.

Colorado recently ranked 40th in spending per student according to 2013 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project.

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