Native fish species focus of population plan on Uncompahgre

Story in the Grand Junction Sentinel By Dave Buchanan

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

081011 OUT Big Dominguez

The Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are about to embark on a multi-year plan to restore Colorado River cutthroat trout to historic habitat in the upper reaches of Big Dominguez Creek.

The plan, which biologists say might take up to eight years to complete, would remove non-native fish, including rainbow trout, from a 15-mile expanse of Big Dominguez and La Fair creeks on the Uncompahgre Plateau.

Once the cutthroat trout are restored, a fish barrier will be placed at the bottom of the restored stretch to prevent a reintroduction of non-natives, including rainbow and brook trout.

The project is a cooperative effort between the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The Forest Service is providing the funding for the project and doing needed preliminary work. Colorado Parks and Wildlife will be the lead in the removal of non-natives and the stocking of cutthroats.

“(Colorado Parks and Wildlife) and us had this list of projects but they didn’t have the money for this one,” said Matt Dare, an aquatic biologist for the GMUG.

“For native cutthroat trout this is the best sort of proactive management we can do to restore more populations of cutthroat trout.”

Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Dan Kowalski was not available for this story, being busy with similar cutthroat restoration projects this summer at Woods Lake near Telluride and Hermosa Creek near Durango.

Dare said the project has become a priority because of a “confluence in funding.”

The money is available through the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, a competitive grant program that selects only 10 forests across the country (see accompanying story).

The forest expects to receive $1 million per year for 10 years, Dare said, for wide-scale work across the Uncompahgre Plateau.081011 OUT carson

“The grant will allow the forest and our partners to do a ton of different activities,” he said.

That includes timber, wildlife and fisheries projects, including the Dominguez Creek restoration.

The cutthroat project still is in its infancy, Dare said.

“Last year we did some preliminary habitat and stream temperature assessment and a little of the preliminary work as part of the NEPA process,” Dare said.

Some of that work was done by two Delta High School students as part of an apprenticeship program through the grant funding, Dare said.

The plan includes poisoning La Fair Creek and a stretch of Big Dominguez Creek above and below its confluence with La Fair to remove non-native fish prior to restocking with cutthroat trout.

La Fair meets Big Dominguez at Carson Hole.

From there, it’s about two miles to the Big Dominguez Wilderness Area, which is on Bureau of Land Management land.

Once the non-native fish are removed, a fish barrier will be built on Big Dominguez Creek near the wilderness boundary.

The fish barrier will prevent non-native fish from spreading upstream into the restored section.

“The goal is to have those trout populations run all the way down into Big Dominguez Wilderness Area but that’s on BLM and they aren’t (prepared),” Dare said.

Dare said more scoping and survey work will be accomplished this summer.

Because of the complexity of the tributary system, the non-native removal will go in steps, with the first treatment not planned until 2013 and a repeat in 2014.

“From a cutthroat trout conservation point we have to make sure there are no non-natives in there,” he said. “Rainbow trout can interbreed with cutthroat trout and we want a fishery that’s genetically pure.”

He said the fish barrier likely won’t be in until 2015 at the earliest with cutthroat stocking after that.

“It’s a very long-term project compared to what we normally do,” he said.

Restoring more than 15 miles of cutthroat trout habitat is “huge relative to what cutthroats are generally found in across their range,” Dare said. “On the GMUG it averages 3 to 4 miles and this would be at least five times that.”

There are “thousands of miles” of potential cutthroat habitat on the GMUG, Dare said, with only 150 or so miles presently occupied by the native fish.