Cooperative effort enhances native cutthroat trout population in Burgess Creek
After seven years of planning and work, partners in a restoration project for native cutthroat trout habitat in Burgess Creek along the edge of the Steamboat Ski Resort permitted area were happy to release 2,500 cutthroat trout fingerlings into the stream last week.
“It’s certainly been a pleasure of a project for me to work on,” said Rick Henderson, Routt National Forest fisheries biologist. “It’s been a great team effort.”
The genesis of the cooperative project between the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks & Wildlife and nonprofit Trout Unlimited started in 2014. Henderson said the ski area was proposing construction work in the Burgess Creek lift area, so fisheries staff walked the area to see how far upstream brook trout could be found.
Officials were excited to find a one-mile stretch of Burgess Creek that was home to a genetically pure population of Colorado River subspecies cutthroat trout. The fish were restricted from moving downstream due to two culverts.
Through in-kind support and labor from the ski area and some grant funding, the structures were replaced with fish-passable culverts. Then through the years, some 10,500 non-native brook trout were removed from the creek to reduce the competition for habitat for the cutthroat trout. The brook trout were caught through electro-fishing and transplanted into Casey’s Pond, Henderson said.
Brook trout that live in the lower Burgess Creek area near the base of the ski area cannot swim upstream because the stream section near Slopeside Grill flows through a pre-existing culvert that is too steep and long, Henderson said. However, the cutthroat trout may travel downstream now.
Colorado River cutthroat trout are a sub-species not listed federally as threatened or endangered. However, the Forest Service considers the fish a “sensitive” species, and CPW officials regard it as a species of special concern, said Billy Atkinson, CPW aquatic biologist.
The USFS biologist said the project represents one of approximately 20 population sites of cutthroat trout within the Yampa River drainage. He said the Burgess Creek site is significant due to the location in town to provide for education and conservation efforts.
Organizers say the biggest task through the next five years will be education, including new educational signage in the works.
“This is a great example of the many ways we partner with valuable organizations to protect and co-exist with wildlife in the area,” said Maren Franciosi, communication manager at Steamboat Ski Resort.
Now with better fish passage and reduced competition from non-native species, the next phase of the restoration project is increasing the population and enabling natural growth. Atkinson said the expanded, two-mile habitat will be restocked with fingerlings for the next two years, then monitored. He said the stream provides good habitat for cutthroat because it has good shrub and tree coverage, is not highly fished and is spring fed for a consistent source of year-round water.
The steep stream is located at a lower elevation than some of the other higher mountain, smaller habitats where cutthroat have been relegated to in the wake of human expansion.
Native cutthroat trout have been reduced to 14% of their historic distribution range in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Non-native trout present competition for optimal habitat for food and space, and brook trout and other species hatch out weeks earlier than cutthroat. According to Atkinson, that means juvenile cutthroat in the fry stage can be eaten by larger fish.
The warmer waters of Burgess Creek should allow for healthy growth rates, Atkinson said. During the winter, most of the stream has a layer of ice that is covered by snow to insulate the stream from further freezing, and the fish live in deeper pools, Henderson noted.
Henderson also said the project would not have been possible without the support of the ski area, as well as 14 landowners along the stream ranging from individual homeowners, to townhome associations, to undeveloped lots.
“The homeowners’ excitement has been one of the best parts of the project,” Henderson said. “They all have an interest in having a healthy stream and in having native fish on their property.”
Tom Scrimgeour, an adjacent homeowner since 1994, was on hand Aug. 30 to help release some of the cutthroat fingerlings that were raised in the CPW Rifle Falls Hatchery. He released a bag of some 150 fingerlings into the creek, noting, “It was fun to actually put the fish in the water.”
“It’s been fun watching this project proceed and a good feeling to be part of something positive when there’s so much negative news, environmental and otherwise, lately,” Scrimgeour said.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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