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Colorado River cutthroats returned to the Book Cliffs

Colorado River cutthroats returned to the Book Cliffs

Biologists stock hundreds of fish

BOOK CLIFFS - A project involving everything from backpacks to helicopters and taking hundreds of hours to complete is almost done.

Roadless area in the Book Cliffs
The Roadless Area in the Book Cliffs. More than 4,000 Colorado River cutthroat trout were stocked here starting in late July.
Photo by Ron Stewart

During the last week in July, biologists stocked hundreds of native Colorado River cutthroat trout into the Roadless Area in the Book Cliffs. The trout were stocked into the headwaters of West Willow Creek, Pioche Creek and She Canyon Creek.

The Book Cliffs are in east-central Utah.

1990s: the project begins

"The project started back in the 1990s with surveys into the roadless area," says Garn Birchell, project coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR). "Our biologists had been looking for areas that might have pure-strain populations of Colorado River cuts. The Roadless Area seemed like a perfect spot to look because it was very remote, but it was still connected to the Green River drainage."

The first crews went in on horseback and sampled several of the small streams. "Their first samples were a surprise," Birchell says. "The trout failed the physical test because they had too many characteristics associated with rainbows or other species of cutthroat trout. So did the trout sampled at every other 'out-of-the-way' place they tried."

The biologists also caught brook trout, which are native to the Eastern United States. It was obvious to the biologists that someone had stocked these streams with non-native fish. "It's likely that the native cutthroat trout interbred with rainbow trout [that were introduced to the area]," Birchell says.

The biologists then turned their attention towards the possibility of reintroducing Colorado River cutthroat trout to the area. "By this time we had located several pure-strain cutthroat populations in the Uinta Mountains and in other areas in the Uinta Basin," Birchell says. "Steps had been taken to bring them into our hatchery system, so we now had brood lakes and sources of fish for reintroductions."

Biologists decided that the Roadless Area could make a good genetic reserve for the native Colorado River cutthroat trout if barriers natural or created prevented the fish from intermixing with other fish that were lower in the drainage.

2002: project picks up steam

"Beginning in 2002, an intensive effort was made to map the streams," Birchell says. "During the first surveys biologists noted several natural barriers and also places where barriers might be built. These were mapped along with the seeps, springs and marshy areas. Water flows and temperatures were also noted."

The biologists soon learned that the surveys were the easy part of the process.

"It seemed like everyone and everything got involved," Birchell says. "We needed to treat the streams in order to remove the non-native fish. This involved reams of paperwork and rounds of public meetings and comment periods. Then throw in changing priorities and policies, funding problems, a few retirements and other man-made snags; like having the area that produces rotenone being in a war zone.

"Not to be outdone, nature decided to throw several years of drought, a massive fire, flash floods and mudslides into the mix.

"Fortunately, everyone recognized it was a good project, and all the state, federal, county and tribal agencies have cooperated to get it done," Birchell says.

2007: the payoff

Colorado River cutthroat trout are carried from a helicopter to their new home in a Book Cliffs stream.
Photo by Ron Stewart

In mid-summer 2006, using crews flown in by a helicopter, the biologists were able to complete the first round of treatments to remove nonnative fish from the area. "We placed rotenone drips in the main streams and used backpack sprayers and sand/rotenone mixes to treat the marshy areas, seeps and springs," Birchell says. "In early July, 2007, we did it again to make sure we got all of the fish."

On July 26, 2007, UDWR and Ute Tribe biologists guided two fish trucks from the Whiterocks State Fish Hatchery down a rutted road on Ute tribal lands to the headwaters of West Willow and Steer Gulch. There they met a helicopter pilot from the Utah Highway Patrol. After some brief introductions, the first Colorado River cutthroat trout were airlifted to their new home in She Canyon Creek. A total of 4,000 more soon followed these 15-month-old fish into Steer Gulch, West Willow and Pioche creeks.

In September, biologists also plan on stocking fingerling trout from this year's egg take.

"I've been teased about going to a lot of trouble and expense just to feed a few bears," Birchell says. "But I believe everyone benefits from this reintroduction.

"Returning a native fish to its native habitat has already paid dividends towards keeping Colorado River cutthroat trout off the Endangered Species List." (A recent petition to list the species was denied mainly because of the conservation efforts that are taking place.)

"Sportsmen benefit by having access to another 28 miles of stream that hold a native fish. This should be a good natural preserve as it has spawning gravel, and other fish have shown they can survive the winters and whatever nature throws at them.

"Also, because this is such a remote area, we should avoid many of the problems which threaten other pure-strain populations," Birchell says. "All in all, everyone wins, including the bears."