Recovery program brings controversial fishing tournament to Moffat County
Locals wish to preserve fishery, feds need compliance
For 28 years, more than a dozen entities have worked together to ensure the future of four prehistoric fish in the Colorado River Basin.
But the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s latest high-priority objective — reducing or eliminating nonnative predators from Elkhead Reservoir — has local fisherman in an uproar.
Elkhead Reservoir, which averages 130,000 people visiting during recreation days per year, is home to nonnative northern pike and smallmouth bass, making it a popular fishery for anglers from across Colorado.
But the same nonnatives that attract anglers to the reservoir are a threat to the four fish the recovery program is trying to save — the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.
To improve the populations of the endangered fish and continue to act as the compliance mechanism for the Endangered Species Act, the recovery program was established as a collaborative effort between state and federal governments, private industry and environmental groups.
The program focuses on research, habitat management, introducing hatchery-raised fishes and reducing threats to the endangered fish.
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recover Program Director Tom Chart said right now, the program’s biggest obstacle is managing nonnative fish, which prey on endangered fish and prevent populations from thriving.
“The greatest threat that we are dealing with right now is these nonnative, predatory fish,” he said.
Chart said that after ramping up attempts to control nonnatives living in the river, it has been become increasingly clear that source populations must be dealt with.
“Elkhead, unfortunately, I understand is a prime fishing location for some of the locals out there, but the amount of escapement of smallmouth bass and northern pike (into the Yampa River) is just intolerable,” he said.
Longtime fisher and Craig resident Burt Clements said he understands that under federal law the fish need to be recovered, but he doesn’t think Elkhead is the problem and rather than eradicating nonnatives, other approaches should be the priority.
“Until they start a real stocking program in the upper Yampa with adult pike minnow, they probably will not recover them in the Yampa River,” he said.
In 2015, the program spent about $1 million on recovery projects in the Yampa River, according to recovery program deputy director Angela Kantola. Efforts did include shocking nonnative fish in the Yampa.
“That total certainly exceeds $1 million when support activities (outreach and program management) for Yampa Basin projects are included,” Kantola wrote in an email.
To address the root of the nonnative problem — Elkhead Reservoir — the recovery program is installing a net on the reservoir to help prevent spillage of predatory nonnatives into the Yampa where the endangered fish live and thrive.
The cost of installation, which is scheduled for this fall, is estimated at $1.2 million. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is contributing $500,000 and the rest of the funding comes from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on behalf of the recovery program.
The program also is recruiting civilians for assistance.
A nine-day fishing tournament offering prizes totaling about $6,000 is scheduled to recruit anglers for the purpose of purging the lake of pike and smallmouth.
The tournament begins Saturday and ends June 19. The boat ramp will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. but anglers are welcome to stay on the reservoir overnight. If a participant catches a tagged fish, they are entered in a drawing for the top prizes, including a brand-new boat.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Senior Aquatic Biologist Sherman Hebein said the initial plan was to lower water levels in the lake and poison the fish population with rotenone. However, that approach turned out to be unpopular and unfeasible.
“What we decided was to actually get the public to assist us with our efforts through a tournament,” he said. “I’m prepared to give away prizes, significant prizes, to get the public involved in this project.”
Despite the hefty prizes, local fishermen are boycotting the tournament.
Craig resident Steve Smith said he has been fishing Elkhead Reservoir since it was opened and he can’t support a “kill tournament.”
“It’s like the WildEarth Guardians and the coal mines,” he said. “This is us going against the government.”
Smith said reducing the fishery at Elkhead would have a negative economic impact on Craig.
“Craig will lose some revenue because fisherman won’t come from all over,” he said. “The lake, as it was for the last few years, has been a destiny lake where people come to fish.”
Allen Hischke, another Craig local, expressed concerns about what he sees as intrusive and unnecessary and government involvement. His thoughts are that Elkhead should be left alone.
The recovery program’s nonnative fish coordinator Kevin McAbee said providing Section 7 compliance is where most of the general population should recognize the importance of the program.
“The success of our program is the Endangered Species Act compliance mechanism for all of these water development projects,” said McAbee. “If we didn’t work together to recover these fish then every time that water development wanted to take place anywhere in the Colorado River Basin, it was going to be a fairly contentious endangered species act consultation,”
Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid said he supports the local fishermen and hopes for a reasonable compromise ensuring a successful recovery and the preservation of Elkhead’s fishery.
“I hope there’s a win-win,” he said.
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