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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

Western wild fires continue to rage as authorities worry over July 4 fireworks

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A growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes in the Colorado mountains, while other blazes across the parched U.S. West kept hundreds of other homes under evacuation orders and derailed holiday plans.

Authorities announced late Monday that a fire near Fort Garland, about 205 miles (330 kilometers) southwest of Denver, had destroyed 104 homes in a mountain housing development started by multimillionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes in the 1970s. The damage toll could rise because the burn area is still being surveyed.

Tamara Estes’ family cabin, which her parents had built in 1963 using wood and rocks from the land, was among the homes destroyed.

“I think it’s sinking in more now. But we’re just crying,” she said. “My grandmother’s antique dining table and her hutch are gone.”

“It was a sacred place to us,” she added.

Andy and Robyn Kuehler watched flames approach their cabin via surveillance video from their primary residence in Nebraska.

“We just got confirmation last night that the house was completely gone. It’s … a very sickening feeling watching the fire coming towards the house,” the couple wrote in an email Tuesday.

The blaze, labeled the Spring Fire, is one of six large wildfires burning in Colorado and is the largest at 123 square miles (318 square kilometers) — about five times the size of Manhattan. While investigators believe it was started by a spark from a fire pit, other fires, like one that began burning in wilderness near Fairplay, were started by lightning.

Nearly 60 large, active blazes are burning across the West, including nine in New Mexico and six each in Utah and California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Utah, authorities have evacuated 200 to 300 homes because of a growing wildfire near a popular fishing reservoir southeast of Salt Lake City amid hot temperatures and high winds. Several structures have been lost since the fire started Sunday, but it’s unclear how many, said Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands.

Darren Lewis and his extended family planned to spend the Fourth of July at a cabin built nearly 50 years ago by his father and uncle in a wilderness area nestled between canyons and near a mountain river.

Instead, Lewis and his family will spend the holiday nervously waiting to hear if a half-century of family memories go up in smoke because of the fire, which has grown to 47 square miles (122 square kilometers).

“There’s a lot of history and memories that go into this cabin,” said Lewis, 44, of Magna, Utah. “The cabin we could rebuild, but the trees that we love would be gone. We’re just hoping that the wind blows the other way.”

Meanwhile, a wind-fueled wildfire in Northern California that continues to send a thick layer of smoke and ash south of San Francisco was threatening more than 900 buildings.

The massive blaze was choking skies with ash and smoke, prompting some officials to cancel Fourth of July fireworks shows and urge people to stay indoors to protect themselves from the unhealthy air.

At least 2,500 people have been told to evacuate as the so-called County Fire continues to spread, said Anthony Brown, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Brown said the blaze, which started Saturday and is surging through rugged terrain northwest of Sacramento, has grown to 113 square miles (294 square kilometers) amid hot and dry weather expected throughout the day. It was 15 percent contained Tuesday.

“The weather is better than what we had over the weekend. But it’s still hampering our efforts and it’s an area of concern,” he said.

So far this year, wildfires have burned 4,200 square miles in the United States, according to the fire center. That’s a bit below last year’s acreage to date — which included the beginning of California’s devastating fire season — but above the 10-year average of 3,600 square miles.

Because of the Independence Day holiday, authorities are also concerned about the possibility of campfires or fireworks starting new fires because of the dry, hot conditions. In Colorado, many communities have canceled firework displays, and a number of federal public lands and counties have some degree of fire restrictions in place, banning things like campfires or smoking outdoors.

In Arizona, large swaths of national forests and state trust land have been closed since before Memorial Day. Some cities have canceled fireworks displays because of extreme fire danger.

In New Mexico, all or part of three national forests remain closed because of the threat of wildfire, putting a damper on holiday camping plans. The forests that are open have strict rules, especially when it comes to fireworks.

“We’re just urging people to use extreme caution,” said Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. “We want people to have fun and enjoy themselves, but we prefer they leave the fireworks shows to the professionals.”

____

Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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More firefighters called in to rein in Southern Colorado fire

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Crews struggled to rein in a wildfire that was spreading in several different directions Sunday in southern Colorado.
More firefighters were arriving to battle the blaze that has prompted the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes.
“It’s a very challenging fire, I’ll be honest with you, with all the wind changes,” Shane Greer, an incident commander with the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, told residents Sunday.
Authorities said the fire east of Fort Garland was estimated at 64 square miles (166 sq. kilometers) after unpredictable winds pushed the fire both north and south over the weekend.
About 500 firefighters have worked to contain the flames since the fire began Wednesday. A second team arrived in the area Sunday and plans to take over fighting the fire north of Highway 160.
The first team will focus on the area south of the highway.
“Usually with a fire we can chase it … we haven’t been able to chase this because it keeps going in at least three different directions,” Greer said.
Authorities said they began assessing some areas this weekend to track destroyed or damaged structures. But they cautioned that conditions remain dangerous and said they want to be sure that information is correct before notifying property owners.
The fire was expected to remain active and grow in intensity with a warm and dry forecast on Sunday.
Highway 160 remains closed and officials said they could not estimate when it will reopen or when the evacuation orders will end.
The Costilla County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday said a man was being held on suspicion of arson in connection with the fire. It is not clear if Jesper Joergensen, 52, has an attorney.
At Sunday’s public update, officials said they do not believe Joergensen started the fire intentionally.
State emergency management officials reported nine other fires remained active around the state on Sunday. Officials near Durango hoped that a cold front would slow down one of those. The fire began a month ago and is estimated at 77 square miles.
The Durango Herald reported that authorities planned to relocate some crews and equipment to help firefighters guarding communities as the flames moved north.

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Get to Crested Butte Colorado for a wildflower wonderland

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Crested Butte’s wildflowers cast a spell on Michelle Bivens at an early age.

“It goes back to about 6 or 7 years old,” she recalls, when her family camped every summer among the vibrant arrays, library books in hand to identify the great variety that makes the mountain town “the wildflower capital of Colorado.”

With a family of her own, she bounced around from Colorado Springs, to Austin, Texas, to Woodland Park over 22 years. But in 2012, Bivens moved the husband and kids to the valley that stayed in her dreams.

“There’s no place like it,” she says — a truth that comforts wildflower buffs in dry years like these when their backyards don’t yield the typical burst.

Bivens is executive director of the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, the weeklong celebration that starts July 6 and will mean more to flora fanatics of the Pikes Peak region and beyond.

That includes George Cameron. He’s a founder of the Native Plant Society’s local chapter, a retired botany professor who’s more than disappointed by what he’s seeing, or not, in his go-to spot, Stratton Open Space.

“This is the worst possible year,” Cameron says. “I live for the wildflowers every year, and it’s very depressing when they’re not there.”

He treasures higher displays on the mountain, those that grace Elk Park and Devils Playground, for example. And while he has yet to visit with “peak season” approaching, he fears the flowers haven’t had the moisture to bloom in abundance.

“There’s been no snowpack, nothing for them,” he says. “I’m not hopeful it’ll be very good this year.”

But for the fields and hills around Crested Butte, his faith is strong. “That’s because of the soil.”

While Pikes Peak’s granite is hydrophobic, washing away moisture, the earth surrounding the glacier-formed area of Crested Butte is composed of shale that better retains water. Snow melts, and life beneath has a better chance of emerging in all its glory.

Indeed, judging by photos out of Crested Butte, the flowers are popping a week before the festival. Snow melted earlier than usual, Bivens says, and the killing cold winds didn’t strike later.

“The good news is the flowers are coming early, and they didn’t freeze,” she says.

So Jason Odell is gearing up for a visit. The Colorado Springs photographer and teacher plans to soon escort clients to Crested Butte, to capture the scene he’s been scouting for almost two decades.

 

He encourages students to enjoy the landscape, the perfect beauty pairing with iconic Colorado ruggedness, but to also pay attention to details. He wants them to kneel before a flower, to photograph the changing shades of a columbine, the dancing of lupines, the petals splaying from an Indian paintbrush’s stem.

“I think wildflowers are so popular because they’re so ephemeral; they’re only around for a few months or sometimes even a few weeks,” Odell says. “And they have this diversity of color that normally we don’t get in our everyday landscape. … It’s being able to say you saw something totally unique.”

The flowers “pull you out of ordinary existence,” Cameron says. In his Pikes Peak Community College pupils, he sought to instill a reverence for the different species, expressing how they all grow on different terms, some appearing only once in a generation, and how they all can exist in harmony.

“There’s always something new to find out,” says Tom Zeiner, a geologist who’s made wildflowers his focus in retirement.

Naturally, he has a summer home in Crested Butte, where during the festival he leads educational hikes, guiding from the valley floor to the high-alpine zones where the colors change, where it’s common for him to spot a flower he’s never noticed before. Already, Zeiner says, he’s observed impressive swaths of glacier lilies and other classics.

But the early bloom highlights a trend concerning climate change onlookers. If the flowers show earlier, will pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds be around to ensure they last?

More immediate threats are the rising number of explorers who pick the flowers and trample off-trail, Bivens says. The nonprofit festival aims to make people “appreciate the wild places we have,” she says. What better teacher than the fragile, mysterious wildflowers?

“It really is quite a miracle that unfolds,” she says.

___

Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com

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Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

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