High river levels help free pike

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— For the past three years, the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program has removed more than 200 non-native fish from a section of the Yampa River west of Hayden and put them in a nearby pond. But when the river rose this spring, all the efforts were essentially ruined.

When the Yampa River washed over its banks, it joined the adjacent pond, giving relocated fish the opportunity to swim right back into the river. Several of the relocated fish, which are tagged by the Endangered Fish Recovery Program, have been caught by people fishing the Yampa River.

"This is an emergency situation," said Pat Nelson, non-native fish coordinator for Upper Colorado Fish Recovery Program. "We were not expecting flows to get as high as they did. We have been tracking snowmelt and river flows, but were not expecting levels to exceed like they did. Unfortunately, these fish now have access to the river."

"All of us who have lived here recognized the risk of the water merging in high water," Colorado Division of Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Susan Werner said. "This is the first time it has actually happened, though, with the droughts in previous years."

The recent efforts to remove northern pike, smallmouth bass and channel catfish from sections of the Yampa River west of Hayden were spearheaded by the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery program, which was formed in 1988 by the Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and U.S. fish and wildlife services, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Western Area Power Administration, and several private groups, worked to create the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program in 1988.

Biologists say these non-native fish species pose a serious threat to the endangered, native humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

"Certainly, a lot of scientific information shows the Yampa River has a bunch of top-level predators that have to be eating something, so they are eating the small, native fish," Werner said. "You can tackle the issue of protecting them by getting rid of (the predator fish) in a particular area, but just reducing (the predator fish) will give the native fish a chance."

Instead of destroying the non-native species, the fish removed from the river are put into ponds to give anglers the opportunity to continue catching them.

Many fishermen enjoy catching the larger fish; northern pike are a "big draw" at Elkhead Reservoir, reservoir manager Ron Dellacroce said.

Duncan Draper, a guide for Steamboat Fishing Company and Straightline Outdoor Sports, is a fisherman who enjoys the big catch. He understands why the Fish and Wildlife services are taking non-native fish species out of the Yampa River, he just doesn't agree with it.

Draper said tax money should not be spent to separate fishes of the river.

"I hate spending money in that matter, especially with the economy the way it is right now," Draper said. "Now, it's all gone to waste. Didn't we know the river was going to rise?"

From 1988 to 2000, the Endangered Fish Recovery Program spent approximately $81.7 million on habitat development, habitat management, instream flow acquisition, non-native fish management, hatchery construction and operation, endangered fish stocking, research, public information and education and program management. Seven percent of that, about $5.7 million, came from Colorado taxpayers, private funds and hunting and fishing licenses sold by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

"It's a value issue," Werner said. "How much is it worth? I don't know."

Non-native fish relocated to ponds are tagged so that when they are caught, the recovery program can be notified. The fact that a few tagged fish from the pond have already been caught in the river has recovery program officials watching carefully.

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