A river wild

Yampa a lifesource for diverse and fragile ecosystems

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In the big-stakes game of water poker, even the fish have a seat at the table.

The razorback sucker, bonytail, humpback chub and Colorado pikeminnow -- four species of endangered fish native to the lower Yampa, Green and Colorado rivers -- are hardly a sportsman's dream, but their importance to the river and the larger water debate can't be underestimated.

All one needs to do is look east toward Craig, where a project to expand the Elkhead Reservoir was not approved until water was set aside specifically for the endangered fish.

Of course, it may take a biologist to fully appreciate each of the four fish. They certainly aren't the attraction for anglers who travel from across the world to fish some of the blue-ribbon waters of the Yampa and its tributaries.

The razorback sucker has fleshy lips suited to sucking its meals from the river bottom. The bonytail has a small head made more ungainly by a set of large fins and a body that tapers to a pencil-thin width. The humpback chub has a long snout that protrudes over its lower jaw, and a pronounced hump behind its head. The Colorado pikeminnow, with a torpedo-shaped body and large mouth, is the closest of the four to looking anything like a game fish.

But it would be a mistake to overlook the clout wielded by fish such as the Colorado pikeminnow.

Pat Nelson is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee working for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, an aggressive program with a goal of restoring a sustainable population of the pikeminnow to its native waters in Colorado and Utah.

"More than 120 years ago, there were reports of huge pikeminnow in the Yampa River in Moffat County. They were the top carnivore in the river," Nelson said. "They were the T-Rex of the Upper Colorado Basin. They grew to be 6-feet long and weigh 80 pounds."

Centuries ago, the pikeminnow was at the top of the food chain in the Yampa River. Today, these unwitting and seldom-seen creatures hold a seat of power in the lively debate about the ways humans will manage and consume water in the arid Colorado Plateau and beyond.

Birth of a power broker

The federal government has linked the survival of these four native species of fish to the ability of water developers to build new dams. The major expansion of Elkhead Reservoir near Craig is evidence that the strategy is working.

The Elkhead project, led by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, will increase the reservoir's water storage, creating more municipal water for the city of Craig and allowing the Conservation District to pursue future dams on other tributaries of the Yampa and Colorado rivers. But the Elkhead expansion wasn't approved until water was set aside for the endangered fish.

Water stored in Elkhead Reservoir will be used to augment flows in the lower Yampa and Green rivers to ensure the fish can survive the low streamflows of August and September -- a time of year when ranchers are taking water out of the rivers and flooding harvested hay fields to generate fall pasture for their livestock.

The four fish species have lived for millions of years in the Colorado River Basin and nowhere else on earth. In the Green River, they endured oil spills and raw sewage contamination during the 1930s. In the 1960s, native fish were killed when plans to poison the "rough fish" of the upper Green River went awry. Today, changes to the river environment continue to threaten the native fish. Biologists know that losing one species in an ecosystem can potentially unravel the web of life.

And that is how four endangered fish species became power brokers in the politics of the Yampa, Green and Colorado rivers. If water developers hope to build more water storage projects to meet the booming human population of Colorado and the West, they also must help meet the needs of the endangered fish.

Of course, there are dedicated men and women such as Mike Montagne who have been working for years to save the native fish.

Montagne, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, has spent the past 13 years working to re-establish the most endangered of the four species -- the razorback sucker. He even has pet names for them, such as "Old One Eye." The razorback is the oldest brood fish at the Ouray National Fish Hatchery south of Vernal, Utah.

"I do have quite a connection to these fish," Montagne said. "There's nothing like (locating) a fish that was originally raised at the hatchery."

The fish hatchery Montagne manages will produce a record 20,000 razorback suckers this year. When ready for life in the wild, the fish will be released into the Green River -- their historical waters.

Before the 18-month-old fish raised at the hatchery are released into the Green, passive transponders are injected into their abdominal cavities. The transponder amounts to a digital name tag that carries an alphanumeric code unique to each fish.

Razorback suckers can live 40 years and reach 3 feet in length. Whenever a razorback is netted from the Green during fish surveys, a scanner detects the transponder and identifies the fish. That allows scientists to learn more about the behavior of the razorbacks.

It costs about $25 to raise a razorback sucker at the hatchery. In a sense, it's the price of a healthy river system -- and the admission fee for water developers looking to tap into the limited water resources of the West.

Gathering mountain streams

The Yampa River, from its beginnings in the rugged Flat Tops Wilderness Area to its convergence with the Green River in the arid desert region of the Colorado-Utah border, is the irreplaceable lifesource of numerous biologically diverse ecosystems. The interdependence of the plants and animals that call the Yampa River and its surrounding valley home is part of a delicate balance of life threatened by manmade developments and their sometimes-disastrous effects.

But the Yampa River remains unique for its relatively natural seasonal cycles. For that reason, the Yampa River is widely hailed as one of the West's last great undammed rivers. That claim isn't exactly true. There are a string of small, manmade reservoirs along the upper Yampa, including the Stillwater, Bear and Yamcolo reservoirs near the Yampa's headwaters. Closer to Steamboat Springs are the Stagecoach and Catamount reservoirs. The city of Steamboat Springs gets its municipal water from behind the dam of Fish Creek Reservoir. And the Elkhead Reservoir east of Craig stores water from the Yampa.

Still, the Yampa continues to behave like an undammed river. Or, in terms that better describe the significance of the Yampa, its hydrograph remains intact.

Although the term "hydrograph" sounds impenetrably technical, it's anything but. Hydrograph means "water graph." If you graph the annual flow of the Yampa along two axes, you quickly grasp the most significant quality for plants and animals -- the river displays a giant spike in flow in late May, when runoff from melting snow in the Park and Elk mountain ranges near Steamboat is at its peak. Native species have adjusted their habits to the spring floods, the rise and decline of the spike, and the lowest flows.

Striking a balance

The significance of the seasonal flows of the Yampa River and the biologically diverse ecosystems it sustains is abundantly clear at the Carpenter Ranch outside of Hayden, about 20 miles west of Steamboat.

The climate is noticeably milder in Hayden, where farmers grow grain, alfalfa and meadow hay. In 1926, a pioneer lawyer named Ferrington Carpenter took stewardship of a magnificent ranch along the Yampa River. The ranch had been established in 1903 by a former Texas Ranger named J.B. Dawson.

Today, the Carpenter Ranch is owned by The Nature Conservancy, which manages the land as a living laboratory. A rare plant community thrives along the stretch of the Yampa River that passes through the Carpenter Ranch, and Conservancy employees are exploring the ways traditional cattle ranching can continue while also protecting the river's delicate ecosystem.

Heidi Mitzelfeld is a stewardship intern at the Carpenter Ranch. She teaches visitors about the rare community of trees -- including box elders, narrowleaf cottonwoods and dogwoods -- that flourishes along the nutrient-rich banks of the river.

Only in a few places in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado can one find such a community of trees and shrubs, Mitzelfeld said, explaining the interdependency between the river and the plant community.

"It's important to understand the way the river and the forest are linked," she said. "Understanding the connections can help us protect the environment."

Western rivers are dynamic systems that, when left to their natural processes, are in constant change.

The meandering banks of a river such as the Yampa gradually "travel" down valley as the river erodes soil material from the outside of a river bend and deposits that same material on the inside of successive river bends downstream. The current is fastest on the outside bend. On the inside of the bend, where the current is slower, sand and gravel drop out, creating a kind of sand bar called a point bar.

The study of this gradual movement is advanced to the point that hydrologists routinely describe it in precise mathematical terms. Mitzelfeld has a more folksy way of explaining it.

"Every spring, the river plays crack the whip," she said. "In order for the cottonwoods to thrive, they have to live on a river that still meanders. The perfect spot for cottonwood seedlings to take hold and grow is on a point bar on the inside of a bend in the river."

The reason the Yampa still creates ideal conditions for this plant community is that its hydrograph -- the historical seasonal flow of the river -- is intact.

"The young trees don't like to grow under a canopy," Mitzelfeld said. Instead, they take hold in the open -- on a point bar -- where they thrive in the sandy soils and gain ample access to water and sunshine.

Unwanted invasion

Not all of the plants that thrive on the Yampa's point bars are playing a finely tuned role in the health of the river environment. Some of them did not evolve during thousands of years to the rhythms of the river and its other inhabitants.

By the time the Yampa River reaches Deer Lodge Park on the eastern boundary of Dinosaur National Monument in Moffat County, its current is fast enough and its volume is large enough to tear giant cottonwoods from their roots along the banks of the river and deposit them downstream.

Where the giant, fallen trees -- or snags, as they're called -- finally find a resting place, they deflect the river current, thus reshaping the river's course. Receding flows deposit debris and sediment against the tree trunk, creating new sandbars.

National Park Service botanist Tamara Naumann describes Dinosaur National Monument as "one of the most wonderful places on the planet." It's a place where Naumann has chosen to make a stand against an alien invader.

"Species extermination will occur if we do nothing," Naumann said. "Scientists worldwide agree that invasive species are the second-leading cause for species endangerment. Invasive species are superseded only by outright habitat destruction."

For a decade, much of her energy has been devoted to the removal of an unwanted plant that flourishes along the banks of the Yampa, Green and Colorado rivers.

Tamarisk is an invasive species that threatens to disrupt the natural ecosystem in Dinosaur National Monument and other places along the Yampa. An invasive species is a plant or animal from another continent that has established itself in a foreign ecosystem. The invasive species lacks the interdependency with other plants and animals that have co-evolved and co-existed within that ecosystem.

Tamarisk, an attractive plant with feathery, pale-lavender blossoms, threatens not only other plants but also native insects, birds and fish.

Although she is a botanist, Naumann also is concerned with the endangered fish of the Yampa. She is more preoccupied with the 750 species of plants that can be found in Dinosaur National Monument, which makes up 210,277 acres of land straddling the border between Moffat County in Colorado and Uintah County in Utah. Despite its landmass, 75 percent of the plants and animals native to Dinosaur can be found along the river.

Salt cedar, as tamarisk is sometimes called, was brought to the U.S. as an ornamental plant in the 19th century. It became established along Western rivers in the 1920s and 1930s.

The plant, which grows five- to 20-feet tall and has deep taproots, is widely criticized for its consumption of large amounts of water. But its thirst is not its most egregious crime.

More significantly, Naumann said, tamarisk displaces native plants. The threat is nothing less than extinction of some of the species that make the Yampa Valley unique.

And modern technology is amplifying the threat of invasive species all over the world.

"Some people ask, 'Isn't that natural?'" for species to move from continent to continent, Naumann said. "The answer is yes," she said. But what's different today is that the pace at which invasive species are arriving is greatly accelerated by modern transportation systems.

"The rates are so vastly greater that it's simply swamping the ability of ecosystems to adapt gracefully," Naumann said.

Native insects don't recognize tamarisk as food, so they avoid the plant. Consequently, songbirds such as the lazuli bunting don't look for food in large stands of tamarisk. Throughout time, as tamarisk stands spread, the habitat for the bird is reduced. Even mighty cottonwoods are being displaced by tamarisk.

Help on the way

Naumann's crusade against tamarisk is not a solo endeavor. Local governments have established weed-control programs to combat the invasion of plants such as tamarisk, and conservation volunteers also are pitching in.

In late June, a group of locals who call themselves the "Friends of the Yampa" joined Naumann and her husband on a six-day float trip through the canyons of Dinosaur National Monument. The group's goal was to remove tamarisk plants thriving along the banks of the Yampa River.

The Friends of the Yampa trips are organized by Jim Linville and his wife, Joan Donham. He teaches at Colorado Mountain College. She is a physician's assistant.

"We want to help the canyon in every way we can," Linville said. "It's been like an educational dream to me. It's so great to get locals together with somebody who knows the river so well. We can build our knowledge."

Naumann said Friends of the Yampa has multiplied the amount of work she can accomplish, and she is optimistic the group and others are making significant inroads on the tamarisk infestation on the Yampa.

When tamarisk takes over in the canyons of the Yampa and the Green rivers, even endangered native fish can be affected.

The fish rely on bars in the river that have been cobbled by stones for their spawning beds. Without the rocks, the fertilized eggs don't have a suitable place to lodge until the larvae hatch. The root system of tamarisk aggressively sprouts on these cobbled bars. The friction of the shallow water flowing against the tamarisk roots slows the current, Naumann said. As a consequence, sediment falls out of the current, and the spawning bed for fish gradually becomes a sand bar. Hidden just below the surface of the river, the ability of the fish to survive has been compromised.

A sucker is born

A picture in a brochure is the closest most Colorado and Utah residents will get to a razorback sucker. Although area settlers relied on the fish as a food source, those days are long in the past. Sport anglers have no interest in hooking a razorback. So why are they and the other endangered fish of the Colorado River Basin so important?

The answer lies in the way plant and animal species in all natural ecosystems have evolved to depend on one another for survival. Subtract enough species from the ecosystem, and the delicate equilibrium is undermined.

National Park Service Ranger Becky Gillette said the fate of the fish is inextricably woven into the cycles of one of the last remaining natural desert rivers on the continent.

"The life cycle of the fish is absolutely tied to points along the peak flow," Gillette said. "For migration and reproduction, you can put an X on the graph" where different behaviors take place at different flow levels.

The peak of the hydrograph -- and only the peak -- indicates a streamflow capable of supplying the backwater nurseries for the juvenile fish. The native fish and only the native fish play a role in the living river system that has evolved during millions of years.

The great conservationist Aldo Leopold said the value of individual species may not always be readily apparent. But that does not make the species less significant.

"If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not," Leopold wrote.

Contemplate the Green River, flowing east to the ancient Mississippi River about 65 million years ago. Then think of an entire mountain range subsiding, allowing the Yampa River to become a tributary of the Green. The two rivers joined forces to cut canyons hundreds of feet deep through tortured rock. Finally, consider how plants and animals adapted during millions of years to the peculiar hardships of this unique environment. Ultimately, human beings are left to confront the reality that Western civilization represents only a handful of pages in the story of a great river.

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