Yampa will not yet close

Wildlife commission hopes peer pressure will limit river use

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— The Colorado Wildlife Commission decided Tuesday at its meeting in Durango to hold off on closing the Yampa River to fishing.

Rather, anglers and other recreational water users should continue their voluntary compliance with the city of Steamboat Springs and Division of Wildlife's recommendations to stop using certain sections of the river, wildlife officials said.

"We believe that peer pressure locally will have an excellent effect on people anglers to cooperate," said Todd Malmsbury, Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman.

"Understanding, of course, the extraordinary conditions that exist on the Yampa right now in terms of low flows and warm water and the impact that is having on the wild fishery."

In the past weeks, the Yampa River has seen water flows as low as 28 cubic feet per second, about 1/20th of its 92-year average of 580 cfs for this time of year.

Low flows result in less habitat space for fish as well as in warm water, which in turn causes low concentrations of oxygen.

Temperatures in the Yampa have neared 80 degrees and oxygen levels have dipped below 5 milligrams per liter, Kevin Rogers said last week. Rogers is the DOW's area aquatic biologist.

The lethal temperature limit for trout is between 74 and 79 degrees, and the dissolved oxygen limit is 4 milligrams per liter, Rogers said.

Because low flows, low oxygen levels and warm temperatures greatly stress the river's wild trout populations, the city recommended a voluntary suspension of all river activities on a 3-mile stretch of the river that flows through the Steamboat Springs city limits last week.

Similarly, Rogers and the DOW recommended that anglers stop using the section of the Yampa running from Stagecoach Dam to where the river joins with the Elk River.

In late June, five commercial river operators also agreed to suspend activity on the river to reduce stress to fish and other aquatic life.

Malmsbury said wildlife officials are asking people in the area to follow these voluntary regulations.

The wildlife commission did vote to give the DOW's director the authority to close state waters based on recommendations from DOW staff.

Before this emergency regulation was agreed to, decisions to close waters to fishing would have to go through the commission.

The wildlife commission is an 11-member board appointed by the governor to meet at least six times a year to make regulations and policies for the DOW.

The only water recreation activity the DOW's director could regulate is fishing, Malmsbury said.

He said past voluntary closures have worked well to discourage river use but if river conditions worsen, closures could become mandatory.

"It is very possible that there will be restrictions put on streams in the state," Malmsbury said.

The Yampa is one of the most-heavily impacted rivers in the state, Malmsbury said, but because of the drought, "there are others that are not very far behind," he said.

Malmsbury said that, to his knowledge, the commission's decision to give the director authority to close waters is unprecedented.

One step the DOW most likely will not take is opening the river up to salvage fishing, which usually happens only in reservoirs and lakes.

Rogers said last week that because weather patterns could change and make river conditions more favorable for the fish, it's tough to say whether a complete die-off of fish is going to happen. Thus, enacting salvage fishing could do more harm than good.

"When we're dealing with wild populations of fish, I think it's important to go ahead and give them the benefit of the doubt and give them every chance," Rogers said.

"Between our dissolved oxygen levels below five and our temperatures approaching 80 on some of these days, we could be close (to a total kill-off). But these fish have proved to be fairly resistant so far."

Large kill-offs of fish in the Yampa have not yet been reported, Rogers said.

Even with the voluntary restrictions on the Yampa, there is good fishing in the area.

Rogers said anglers should try Steamboat Lake, Stagecoach Reservoir, local ponds and most of the high country to find fishing that won't harm the local trout fishery.

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