Efforts to protect native fish getting funds | VailDaily.com

Efforts to protect native fish getting funds

John LaConte
jlaconte@vaildaily.com

In this Sept. 9, 2016 file photo, Jeff Bennett with the Buckhorn Metro District checks the flow of Abrams Creek outside of Gypsum. The creek is home to a native population of cutthroat trout and efforts are underway to retain more water in the creek through improved diversion techniques.

EAGLE COUNTY — A rare species of cutthroat trout found near Gypsum is expected to thrive if an idea for stream restoration is realized.

Thanks to recent donations, that idea is much closer to becoming a reality.

Trout Unlimited announced Monday that the Abrams Creek restoration project has been awarded several local and federal grants in recent weeks, totaling $190,500.

The goal of the project is to provide water to Gypsum's Buckhorn Valley neighborhood via pipeline, rather than the irrigation ditch that is currently used. It will cost more than $1 million to do, and the recent donations bring the total money raised to more than $500,000. If the water is able to be piped to Buckhorn Valley, then it will leave about 40 percent more flows in Abrams Creek for the benefit of the cutthroat trout population.

The fact that the Abrams Creek cutthroat survived the formation of the ditch is a testament to the fish's resilience. The ditch was dug by hand in 1906 by a rancher named Julius Olsen; being one of the oldest water rights on the Western Slope, the Buckhorn Valley Metro District isn't about to relinquish it, despite their support of the cause.

Through negotiation and a lot of study and engineering, the plan to pipe in the water was formed, said John Hill with the Metro District.

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"The water quality will be better, there's less maintenance required, and the fish will get their water," Hill said.

UNIQUE AMONG CUTTHROATS

Less water means shallower, warmer water, and when Olsen originally dug his ditch, it certainly resulted in less water for the Abrams Creek cutthroat. This means the fish itself may be genetically suited to handle an impending rise in water temperature. For that reason, biologists are especially excited about the discovery of the native fish.

"Colorado Parks and Wildlife values the Abrams Creek cutthroat, which are the last remaining population of aboriginal cutthroat in the Eagle watershed and exhibit characteristics unique even from other cutthroat populations," said Kendall Bakich, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist. "Receiving substantial support from a diversity of community organizations and members helps protect these important native trout well into the future for the citizens and visitors to Colorado, as well as gives us the opportunity for future reintroduction efforts locally."

STILL NEED FUNDS

Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that it was awarding a $90,000 Cooperative Watershed Management program grant to the Abrams Creek project.

About a month ago, the town of Gypsum also voted in favor of contributing $100,000 from its wildlife impact fees fund to the project. Alpine Bank in Gypsum also threw in $500.

"After almost a decade of analysis, planning and collaborating, the Buckhorn Valley Metropolitan District is very grateful for the magnanimous endorsements by all these important donors," Hill said. "The hard work of CPW, (Trout Unlimited), (Bureau of Land Management), Eagle River Watershed Council and Buckhorn's own staff, engineers and attorneys is going to pay off with an enduring legacy habitat for this important species."

In March, with the support of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, the Colorado Water Conservation Board granted $364,711 to the project. Other contributors include the BLM ($10,000) and the Eagle River Chapter of Trout Unlimited ($5,000).

"With these donations, we're at the halfway mark for cash needed to fund the project," said Mely Whiting, with Trout Unlimited.

The project continues to seek funding through grants and donations. Whiting said earlier this month, they applied for a grant with the state water conservation board, which appeared to be tailor made for the Abrams Creek trout.

"It's a program where the state helps fund restoration for fish and wildlife impacts caused by water diversion projects," Whiting said. "So we think it's a good fit. … We should know by the end of summer."

WHAT’S A CUTTHROAT?

Recognizable for the red neck slash that gives it the appearance of a murder victim, the cutthroat is the only fish in Colorado that’s native to the state. In the Eagle River Watershed, Abrams Creek is the only area to contain a native population of cutthroat trout, unaffected by the introduction of rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout to the area during the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s one of only a handful of indigenous populations left in the entire Upper Colorado River watershed, a fact that was recently uncovered through improvements in the field of genetic research. The Abrams Creek cutthroats are known to geneticists as green lineage fish, indigenous to that particular drainage and different from the blue lineage cutthroats found in other parts of the state.

HOW TO HELP

Donations can be made by visiting http://www.coloradotu.org/abramscreek, or checks with “Abrams Creek Project” noted can be mailed to the Eagle Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Attn: Elbert Bivins, P.O. Box 8096, Avon, CO 81620.

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