Work enhances natural attributes

Three miles of Trout Creek restoredon Creek Ranch luxury subdivision

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— It should come as no surprise that there are trout in Trout Creek. But the fish that Colorado is known for haven't always thrived in the creek that winds its way out of the Flat Tops toward its confluence with the Yampa River, about 10 miles west of Steamboat Springs.

Now, a local real estate development has received an award for its work restoring habitat areas along three miles of Trout Creek. And there's evidence the trout are coming back.

Brent and Robin Romick of the Creek Ranch have received the "Excellence in Riparian Management" award from the Colorado Riparian Association. Alan Carpenter, president of the Boulder-based association, said the work done at the Creek Ranch will improve the overall health of the stream, along with improving trout habitat.

"The Romicks displayed an innovative vision of how land use changes and pressures can be designed to preserve western values, native landscapes, and sensitive habitats," Carpenter said.

Carpenter cited the Creek Ranch for creating wetlands, ensuring beneficial use of historic water rights, and continuing agreements with the Colorado Division of Wildlife for elk habitat management.

And this fall, a new generation of trout stocked in the creek have survived their first winter and a summer of relative drought.

The Creek Ranch LLC is a ranch preservation community designed to allow limited development of homes, while remaining compatible with traditional agricultural activities.

Bill Chace, the owner of a company called Riverkeepers, worked closely on the restoration of Trout Creek's riparian, or streamside habitat on the Creek Ranch.

Chace has found old newspaper accounts describing the large numbers of native cutthroat trout that once were found in Trout Creek.

"Trout Creek used to be full of big Colorado cutthroats" Chace said. "Apparently there were so many fish, they sustained coal miners during mine shutdowns."

Cutthroats were scarce a couple of years ago when Chace was hired by the Romicks to begin restoring the streamside vegetation that is one of the keys to a healthy trout stream.

When a count of trout was taken in the stream, Chase said only three cutthroats were found.

"Which was actually a surprise," Chace said. "Mostly we found brown trout. Anywhere the water was 2.5 to 3 feet deep and there was an overhanging alder, they were there."

The problem was, there weren't nearly enough streamside alders and willows to add up to a healthy creek.

Chace explained that the shrubs and bushes that line a stream play multiple roles in its heath. Overhanging branches and leaves cool the water to temperatures that sustain trout. They also satisfy the fishes' strong instinct to seek cover. The bushes are a haven for aquatic insects that make up the food base of the trout. When the leaves fall from the bushes into the stream, they decay and provide a nutrient source for the invertebrates that are needed to make a healthy stream.

Finally, the riparian plants stabilize the stream banks and help to prevent harmful erosion.

Ironically, Chace said he has learned from interviews that ranchers along Trout Creek traditionally went to great lengths to remove the native willows and alders along the banks to increase available pasture. He spent a good portion of last year working to restore the shrubs. More than 8,000 shrubs of native species were planted along the three-mile stretch of Trout Creek within the Creek Ranch. Of the total, about 2,000 shrubs were actually grown from the seed of plants already existing along the creek, ensuring that they were genetically specific to Trout Creek.

Some of the work was accomplished by using rubber-tired front-end loaders to cut 4-by-8 foot sections or "mats" of shrubs including the root systems, from healthy parts of the riparian habitats and transplanting them along badly eroded banks.

In addition to replanting native shrubs, the work at the Creek Ranch has involved fencing off about 150 acres of riparian habitat to keep cattle out for three to five years, Chace said. .

Chace isn't naive he understands that improved trout habitat makes the Creek Ranch more desirable as a real estate development. But he doesn't believe the improved riparian habitat is the kind of amenity that closes sales. At the Creek Ranch, that kind of "Oh wow!" factor is provided by a pair of ponds that are stocked with well-fed trout for the enjoyment of visitors to the ranch.

The appreciation of riparian habitat will be realized over time, Chace predicted. And the trout are back in Trout Creek.

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