Peter Patten plants a willow on the banks of Armstrong Creek in California Park. A creek restoration project aims to make the river more habitable to native species of fish, including the Colorado River cutthroat trout.

Photo by Scott Franz

Peter Patten plants a willow on the banks of Armstrong Creek in California Park. A creek restoration project aims to make the river more habitable to native species of fish, including the Colorado River cutthroat trout.

Volunteers working to make Armstrong Creek more livable for a dwindling species of trout

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— The last time Rick Henderson searched a 400-foot stretch of Armstrong Creek for Colorado River cutthroat trout, he found only two.

Project partners

The creek restoration project is a collaboration of many state and local agencies. The partners include Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Routt County Conservation District, the city of Craig, Tri-State, Shell Oil, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (including the Yampa-White Basin Roundtable), and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“The normal density in this stretch would be about 50 fish or so,” Henderson said as a team of volunteers behind him planted new willows along the banks of the creek deep in California Park that temporarily looked like a construction zone in the middle of pristine grasslands.

When all the digging, hammering and planting is done, Henderson, a fish biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, hopes he’ll be able to come back to the creek in picturesque northwestern Routt County and find more of the fish that scientists think currently inhabit only 14 percent of their historical range.

For that hope to come true, Mother Nature needs to lend a hand.

This month, about 700 feet of the creek was rerouted to improve the riparian habitat and give these fish more pools to frequent.

New fencing also temporarily will keep out livestock and wildlife as the creek and surrounding vegetation tries to make a comeback.

Previously, the stretch of water was running as wide as 12 feet and as shallow as a few inches. Now it should take a narrower path and run deeper in places.

“This is how this creek wants to run,” Henderson said.

All of the recent changes should lower water temperatures and make the stream more inviting to fish.

The volunteers aiding in the vegetation stage of the project Wednesday trudged through ankle-deep mud and sacrificed pairs of jeans and khakis to anchor the new plants deep into the ground.

“This sure beats being back in the office,” Shell Oil contractor Peter Patten said as he finished using his bare hands to pad muddy soil around a freshly planted willow. “It feels good to be part of a project like this.”

The creek restoration project is years in the making and is happening in an area Henderson said is host to the most sensitive species in the Routt National Forest.

Three miles north of the creek restoration project, the Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Trout Unlimited recently finished a new 50-acre riparian enclosure that will protect a breeding ground for boreal toads.

California Park also hosts leopard toads and sharp-tailed grouse.

But it was cutthroat trout, mountain suckers, speckled dace and mottled sculpin that were the focus of Wednesday’s work.

The creek restoration project is being spearheaded by Trout Unlimited, a national conservation organization, along with the Forest Service and Parks and Wildlife.

Brian Hodge, Trout Unlimited’s project coordinator for Northwest Colorado, said restoring Armstrong Creek isn’t just about helping out the fish.

“This has a number of other benefits,” he said.

He said decades of different land uses in California Park have fragmented the streams in the upper Elkhead Creek watershed.

Because of this, the creeks also are delivering more sediment to Elkhead Reservoir.

Improving the creek should reverse that trend.

“What we learn on this stretch here, we can apply to other restoration projects,” he said.

He was hoping Wednesday that the volunteers could close a green gate leading to the creek and be able to come back in a couple of years to see a healthy, natural creek.

"Mother Nature is going to do her thing, and hopefully, it will look good when we come back," he said.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10.

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