Public addresses concern about Yampa River plan

Low river flow, nonnative fish threaten endangered species downstream

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— There are two definite factors that could threaten four endangered fish species in the Yampa River living below Craig.

Gerry Roehm, in-stream coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, explained to a crowd of about 40 people Tuesday night how the final draft of the Yampa River Basin Management Plan is attempting to address both factors. The plan is meant to protect the bonytail, Colorado pike minnow, humpback chub and razor sucker without implementing the Endangered Species Act.

The meeting was organized at Centennial Hall to inform the public about the management plan and to collect and encourage public comment.

One factor is maintaining appropriate flows in the Yampa River. To ensure the flow doesn't go below 90 cubic feet per second at Maybell (as determined to be the lowest healthy flow in the plan), 7,000 acre feet of water would be stockpiled in numerous reservoirs along the river. That water would be released when flows are too low.

The other factor threatening endangered fish does not have such a direct solution.

Nonnative, predator fish primarily northern pike, but also channel catfish and smallmouth bass can feast on the endangered fish in the Yampa River. Both the nonnative and endangered fish depend on the same elements of the river for breeding, complicating the problem even more.

The solutions the plan offers include relocating the pike to off-channel ponds, encouraging anglers to keep nonnative fish they catch and screening reservoirs on the Yampa River that stock the nonnative fish.

Locals anglers in the audience expressed concerns about these options.

Northern pike relocations have been implemented on the Yampa River in the past year, which Roehm said has shown success. But local Bill Chase said he thought the cost of doing it may not be worth the effort when that money can be used for habitat restoration of native fish.

He suggested that a bounty of the pike may work better.

"I think we can make a very positive impact in a very short period of time," Chase said.

Roehm said offering a bounty is not excluded in the plan. Also, how and which option will be implemented is beyond the scope of the plan.

Local Duncan Draper added that any effort to eradicate pike from the Yampa River will be difficult. Some people want to fish for pike and will illegally reintroduce the fish.

"There are no provisions to stop 'bucket biologists,'" said Draper, referring to a phrase used to describe people stocking pike into the water without permission.

He also commented that he doesn't believe building a screen on the inlets of reservoirs to keep nonnative fish in is financially appropriate.

"It just doesn't seem like a logical way to spend the money," he said.

The cost of screening is about $1 million, with an estimate of $400,000 worth of maintenance every four to five years, Roehm said. Elkhead and Highline reservoirs are being considered for screening.

"We'll never eradicate pike," Roehm explained. "But pike work has shown you can deplete the population."

Public comment for the management plan has been extended to Dec. 14. A draft of the plan can be obtained at Bud Werner Memorial Library, Hayden Town Hall, the Moffat County Library in Craig and at the Little Snake River Conservation District in Baggs, Wyo.

Included in the management plan is a biological opinion that will be addressed at future public meetings, which will discuss the impacts of various projects on the river.

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