City, Botanic Park partner to help mountain whitefish spawn in Fish Creek
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On Jeff Morehead’s daily planner, under Oct. 19, he wrote, “Saved the whitefish.”
Morehead didn’t announce a massive plan to fix all the problems mountain whitefish face, but he completed a project that has seemingly helped the native species return to Fish Creek to spawn.
As a Yampa River Botanic Park team member, Morehead removes the diversion dam on Fish Creek under U.S. Highway 40 every year. The water flows through two arches under the road, and the dam keeps the water level high enough in one of them so water diverts to the Yampa River Botanic Park.
Each fall after Halloween, the park closes and Morehead removes the dam. This year, as requested by Steamboat Springs Water Resources Manager Kelly Romero-Heaney and Public Works City Engineer Ben Beall, Morehead removed the structure a bit earlier. Additionally, he created a wing dam of rock and fabric to divert the water through one arch instead of two, deepening the flow of water.
“I was just happy to help,” said Morehead. “You could tell the fish were going right past me while I was doing it. I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is absolutely working.’”
Without the diversion, waterflow through both arches isn’t deep enough to allow the fish to swim and jump through the box culvert steps. The middle arch has one large step of about 18 inches, according to Morehead, which would be nearly impossible for the fish to leap over.
“It’s staircased in a way that the drops are like 18 inches and there’s a long flat that approaches the staircase, so the whitefish can’t really swim and get a jump over that 18 inches.”
There used to be a third arch, but as of summer 2019, a sidewalk underpass filled the far right arch. That left the far left arch as the only viable option for fish to get upstream.
With more water flowing through the arch, it allowed whitefish to swim upstream and spawn in the waters of Fish Creek. Development and low water levels have made it harder to access their main spawning tributary for the fish living in the headwaters of the Yampa. The whitefish spawn, or lay their eggs, in early to mid-October. The eggs will hatch in the spring before the waters reach their peak flow.
As seen in a video taken and edited by Morehead, the whitefish seem to have utilized the access point to Fish Creek.
Whitefish populations in the Yampa River Basin have been dwindling for years, so, as part of the Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan adopted in 2018, the city of Steamboat Springs vowed to “promote native fish populations from further decline and promote range expansion where possible.” The Fish Creek diversion is just one way the city is working to accomplish that task.
The mountain whitefish isn’t endangered, but its numbers are falling in the Yampa River Basin, where it’s one of two native salmonids in the area, the other being cutthroat trout. The species is also found in Colorado in the White River Basin. They live in the Northwest in cool waters of high elevation streams, rivers and lakes, particularly in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
While they are thriving in other areas of the country, including the White River Basin, they are struggling in the Yampa River Basin as noted in samples taken from the river every few years, most recently conducted by Billy Atkinson, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
A huge reason for their decline is the non-native northern pike. Pike are predacious fish and feed on the whitefish. There have been efforts to control the pike population in the area, which is another goal of the Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan.
Mountain whitefish are doing well in the White River, where there are no northern pike to prey on the native fish. There are other ecological factors that can be attributed to the whitefish’s success in the White River basin, but no pike is the biggest difference between that system and that of the Yampa River.
Predation is just one issue plaguing the whitefish.
The whitefish, which can grow up to 2 feet, loves cold water in high elevations. A 20-year drought in Colorado has brought on some particularly rough water years, though, lowering the flow in rivers across the state.
The Yampa River was extremely low this year, closing to usage Sept. 2 when the streamflow dropped below 85 cubic feet per second. Shallower water is warmed by the sun far easier than deeper water, causing stress to fish that prefer cooler temperatures.
Thankfully, there are already efforts in place to improve this on two fronts. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District releases water from Stagecoach Reservoir to improve river flow and prevent the loss of fish habitat when the water line lowers.
Additionally, the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council and Retree have been planting young trees on the banks of the Yampa in designated spots. When they grow, the trees will provide shade to the river, helping maintain lower temperatures.
This year, with water levels so low, the end of summer river closure extended into the fall to put less stress on the entire Yampa River ecological system. With low flow, fish, such as the mountain whitefish, concentrate in small pools due to limited resources.
“We wanted to take a proactive measure after what we saw last year with the declines compared to prior years,” said Atkinson. “We wanted to give those fish an opportunity to recoup some energy and build up fat reserves before going into the lean times of the winter.”
For those who don’t have a hand in making environmental changes and improvements, they can help by simply obeying river closures. If someone fishing catches a mountain whitefish, Atkinson said it’s best to handle them carefully and release them quickly to ensure they stay healthy. Additionally, anglers can keep any non-native northern pike they catch whenever possible to help thin the population of the predacious fish.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife will perform another sampling on the Yampa River next year, where it will become clearer how this poor water year has affected the fish.
“If they were to go away, that’s an indicator things are out of whack,” said Atkinson. “That’s not always an easy fix in this day and age with so many demands on the river systems.”
There’s no way of knowing how the surrounding ecosystem would change if the whitefish were to disappear from the Yampa River.
“We can never fully understand the role that our native species play in regulating the ecosystem services that the river provides,” said Romero-Heaney. “You don’t always know that until it’s gone. If we lose a species like this, it could trigger what would be called a trophic cascade or impacts to the food web in a way that could change water quality, habitat. It could increase algae blooms. That’s why it’s so important for us to work hard to preserve this species.”
The whitefish is the one species that the city has specifically called out to protect and monitor for the foreseeable future. Through the plan, proper fishing practices and environmental restoration projects, the mountain whitefish could thrive again in the Yampa River Basin.
“Whitefish always got such a bad rap, they are the underappreciated fish species in the Yampa,” said Romero-Heaney. “I just want to call upon all of our fishing guides and fly-fishing people to help make whitefish sexy again.”
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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Keith Hale thinks fishing in the Yampa Valley has started off different this year. Normally, the river is higher as the snow rapidly melts, making it cloudy and difficult to fish.