Removing sportfish

Yampa River anglers mixed on native recovery program

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A program designed to increase numbers of endangered fish in sections of the Yampa River has left some anglers casting their approval while others reel in disappointment.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a joint effort of Colorado, Utah and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is set to begin in the next several weeks.

The project seeks to remove northern pike, smallmouth bass and channel catfish from sections of the Yampa River west of Hayden. Biologists say the non-native fish species pose a significant threat to the endangered, native humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

"Our data suggests the abundant game fish like northern pike, smallmouth bass and channel catfish are eating most of the young fish produced each year," said Tom Nesler, manager of the Colorado Division of Wildlife Native Fish Conservation Program. "This will result in declining adult populations of native fish species over time."

"We think the reduction of large predators like northern pike from the river may improve survival and abundance of Colorado pikeminnow, in part by reducing competition for food," Nesler said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed northern pike from areas of the Yampa River for the past three or four years, said Susan Werner, area wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

This project is "really an extension of the program to remove northern pike," Werner said.

The efforts to remove northern pike largely have occurred downriver from Steamboat Springs, where critical habitat for some of the endangered fish species simply doesn't exist, Werner said.

Although numerous other non-native fish species call the Yampa River home, none are thought to be as threatening to endangered species as the three up for removal, which are all known to prey upon other fish.

The non-native species were introduced to the Yampa River over the last century and have thrived since, according to Pat Nelson of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Their success has sped the demise of some native fish species, Nelson said.

Under the recovery program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees will use nets and electrofishing to capture and relocate the pike, bass and catfish, he said.

In areas of the river identified as control sections, captured fish will be marked and released back into the river. Fish will be removed and, in most cases, relocated in treatment sections.

It's unclear what effect the program will have on anglers, especially those who enjoy fishing for pike and smallmouth bass.

The program already has disappointed some anglers.

"We don't like it," said Burt Clements of the Craig-based Yampa Valley Bassmasters. The program could inflict serious damage on bass and pike fishing along stretches of the Yampa River near Craig, where fishing is already sub par, Clements said.

"We don't have a lot of good fishing down here," he said. "As long as we have the pike and the smallmouth, we have a good fishery. We support (the program) as long as we don't lose our sportfishing in the process."

Northern pike and smallmouth bass populations won't be eliminated through the recovery program, Nelson said.

"What we hope to achieve is a balance whereby the endangered species can be recovered and coexist with non-native fishes," Nelson said. "We don't want to remove all the non-native fish. There still will be fishing out there."

Nelson also said the program is just an experiment at this point and its effectiveness and duration won't be known until annual data analysis provides concrete evidence.

"We don't know yet whether we'll be able to reduce the number of non-native fishes and whether the endangered fishes will increase in numbers," Nelson said.

Clements said Yampa Valley Bassmasters lobbied hard to make sure fish would be relocated to nearby reservoirs and ponds. All captured smallmouth bass will be relocated to Elkhead Reservoir, Clements said.

Fish captured in areas where relocation isn't feasible will be euthanized, Nelson said.

Sentiments regarding the recovery program differed somewhat in Steamboat, where many anglers and fishing businesses prefer trout fishing to pike and bass fishing.

"We're supportive of anything anybody's doing to create a better trout fishery," Steamboat Fishing Company owner Jeff Ruff said.

However, the program is somewhat of a mixed blessing because many anglers enjoy fishing large northern pike, Ruff said.

Straightline Outdoor Sports employee Daren Mangiaracina said stretches of the Yampa near Hayden and Craig could use some help to boost trout populations.

"It does need something," he said. "I would think (the recovery program) would be good."

Even though the recovery program isn't designed specifically for trout populations, trout would benefit from a reduction in the number of pike.

An informational meeting on the recovery program will be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Courthouse Annex, 136 Sixth St. in Steamboat. A program meeting will be held in Craig at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Shadow Mountain Clubhouse, located at 1055 County Road 7.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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