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Restoring fish only a mother could love

Scott Congdon

ASPEN ” They aren’t exactly cuddly creatures. One is the fish world’s equivalent of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Another looks out of place, with a porpoise-like beak protruding from a sleek body.

“These aren’t the cute, cuddly things like a grizzly cub,” said Debra Felker, information and education coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

Cute or not, four endangered species of fish are the focus of one of the biggest recovery programs under way in Colorado through the federal Endangered Species Act. And the Roaring Fork Valley is playing a big part in that effort.

Ruedi Reservoir, on the border of southwestern Eagle County, is releasing more water ” and the Fryingpan River is flowing higher than it has in 11 ” years to try to improve the plight of the fish. The higher level has paddlers excited about rare opportunities to run the Fryingpan and it has some homeowners slightly nervous about rising water levels.

Both groups can thank the pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker and bonytail for the situation. Those four natives of the Colorado River haven’t fared well since humans started building dams, impeding their instinctive migration to spawning grounds. Non-native fish like small-mouth bass and northern pike prey on the natives, crowding them out of their habitat.

“There’s just not enough room in the river,” Felker said.

The pikeminnow and humpback chub have been on the endangered species list since it was created in 1973. The bonytail was added in 1980; the razorback joined in

1991.

Tom Czapla, a biologist with the recovery program, said it’s important to help those native fish survive because the ecosystem needs them to stay in balance.

“When something like this happens, it’s not good for the system,” he said.

So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying help the endangered fish as best it can. Water from the Ruedi, Dillon, Green Mountain, Williams Fork and Wolford Mountain reservoirs will be used in an attempt to mimic flooding near Grand Junction that’s been part of the Colorado River habitat for millions of years.

The coordinated release can only occur when snowpack is at or above average. That ensures the reservoirs will still fill even if water is released for the endangered fish. Ruedi is expected to fill to capacity this year around July 4.

This is only the third year in a decade that water could be released to help the four fish. Drought conditions from 2000 through 2004 were tough on the recovery effort, Czapla said. He and his colleagues hope this year starts a streak of above average snowpack and high flows on the Colorado River.

The high water levels benefit the endangered fish in two ways, Czapla said. First, the “flushing flood” cleans out gravel beds in the river channel so macroinvertabrates the fish eat can thrive and spawning grounds are improved.

Second, high water levels force water into backwater areas where the current isn’t so strong and the fish can hang out.

But the biggest benefit might be the problems the higher flows create for the non-natives, Czapla said. Small-mouth bass, for example, need lower flows to spawn and thrive.

The success of the recovery program is tough to gauge, Czapla said.

There are self-sustaining populations of the humpback chub and pikeminnow, a lunker that can grow to be 6 feet long. Razorback suckers and bonytails are being stocked.

Recovery program officials hope the water releases improve habitat on the 15 miles of the Colorado River between Cameo and Grand Junction, a stretch that’s particularly important for spawning.

Vail, Colorado


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