Work to Save Endangered Fish Receives National Attention

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The Upper Colorado River and the San Juan River endangered fish recovery programs recently received Cooperative Conservation awards from the U.S. Department of the Interior (USDI).

The two programs, which were submitted together for the award, were selected from a field of 700 nominees. The USDI awarded 21 Cooperative Conservation awards this year.

Biologists and outreach personnel with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources are among those involved in the programs.

Unique partnership

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program formed in 1988. At the time of its formation, this voluntary partnership was unique. Since its formation, the program has become a template for other big projects across the country that involve people and groups with different, and sometimes conflicting, interests.

The program’s goal is to recover endangered fish in the Green and Upper Colorado river drainages. The program faces a big challenge — how to apply science and recover the fish without seriously affecting the interests of people in the drainages.

Since the Green and Colorado rivers run through several states, and water use impacts a long list of interests — including communities, government agencies, and private and commercial interests — recovery efforts needed to involve a broad base of constituents.

A new concept was developed to give everyone a voice while keeping enough structure in place to get something accomplished.

The first step was to make membership in the program voluntary. The second was to create a three-tiered approach. This approach included one or more committees at each tier or level.

The top tier draws its membership from governors’ offices and agency heads. The second tier is a management level. The third tier is a technical or biological level. The third tier is where most of the research and sharing of information takes place among members of the program and with the public.

When the San Juan River was added to the recovery efforts in 1992, its program also adopted the three-tiered approach.

“Because participation on the committees is voluntary, each state, Native American tribe, agency, group or individual had to decide how much they wanted to be involved,” says Kevin Christopherson, regional supervisor for the DWR. “Utah, through the DWR, made the decision to get in deep. We hired biologists and jumped right in.”

Working starts — and continues — in Utah

Sampling fish in Utah was one of the first projects the DWR and its partners got involved in. Sampling helps determine population numbers, the locations where the fish are, their seasonal movements and other base-level information.

Projects then began to focus on specific species and the habitats they needed. The information gathered has helped determine which river flow patterns will help the fish the most and when water needs to be released from Flaming Gorge dam to supply those flows.

More recent studies are looking at the flood plains near the rivers. “For example, the levee removal project looked at breaching old man-made levees around key flood plain locations to try and provide larval razorback sucker with important rearing pond-like habitat,” says Trina Hedrick, native aquatics project leader in the DWR’s Northeastern Region.

“The construction of Flaming Gorge dam altered flows to a point that flood plains were often disconnected from the river, even during high flows. Breaching the levees allowed river flows to expand back into traditional flood plain habitat. That made this habitat available again to razorback suckers.

“Since the breaching of the levees, we’ve been doing research into what flows are necessary to maximize spawning efforts.

“Razorbacks spawn upstream. As the larval fish emerge from their eggs, they’re swept downstream. If they manage to be swept into a natural backwater, like those now re-exposed by one of our breached levees, their chance of survival goes way up.”

Another project, a larval drift project, used colorful beads to track drifting patterns. “We looked at how something small, like a fish larva, would drift in the river,” Hedrick said. “This study has helped us learn how drift behaves in the river at different water levels. This information will help us fine tune releases from Flaming Gorge dam to increase the number of fish that survive.”

Hedrick says the program has also stocked one- and two-year-old razorback suckers into the Stirrup flood plain. Fish were stocked there to learn which age classes tend to move back into the river after being in the flood plain for most of their young life.

“We know the larval fish drift into the calmer flood plain habitats shortly after they swim up from their eggs,” she says. “Early in the year, these calm-water flood plain habitats are much more productive than the river, and the larval fish grow much more quickly in them. One study even showed that the young razorbacks that don’t make it to the flood plain but stay in the river will probably starve to death due to a lack of food in the early spring.

“However, we really don’t know how long these fish need to stay in the flood plain before they move back out into the river,” Hedrick says. “We’re really trying to understand the whole life history of the razorback sucker. Hopefully this new study will help us draw some conclusions about their movement out of the flood plain.”