Read this fish story, suckers

Jimbo Buickerood, Lee-Ann Hill and Quincey Buickerood raft along the red cliffs of the lower Dolores River in June. Rafters are among the many interest groups working to protect native fish species in the Lower Dolores. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

Jimbo Buickerood, Lee-Ann Hill and Quincey Buickerood raft along the red cliffs of the lower Dolores River in June. Rafters are among the many interest groups working to protect native fish species in the Lower Dolores.

The Lower Dolores Plan Working Group has taken a step toward ensuring the integrity of the local river by working to protect the lives of the species native to its waters.

Calling their plan “A Way Forward,” the group is taking the suggestions offered in a recently completed scientific report to find a way to increase habitat and successful reproduction of the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub. The overarching goal is to create a healthy, thriving water source in Southwest Colorado that is protected by local stakeholders, not federal designation.

“The work that the Lower Dolores group and its legislative committee has been doing pointed to a need to give the fish some help,” said Marsha Porter-Norton, group facilitator. “We commissioned a group of scientists to study these native fish and tell us what actions we could take. They said that yes, we should pursue this now.”

The report, released to the group in August, was completed by Kevin Bestgen, a researcher with Colorado State University’s Laraval Fish Laboratory; Phaedra Budy, a professor in Utah State University’s Department of Watershed Sciences; and William Miller, owner of Fort Collins-based Miller Ecological Consultants. In the body of the 57-page report, the three professionals offer nine opportunities for improvement in the status and trends of the three species.

Enhancing the health of the fish is necessary to the protection of the river itself and the multiple-use nature of the waters, said Mike Preston, manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District and member of the working group.

“In recent years there has been a great deal more focus on these native fish species,” Preston said. “The concern about these fish centers on the fact that though they are not a listed (species), they are considered a sensitive species. What would be problematic would be if those species got listed as threatened or endangered. We would potentially lose control of the river with a listing, and that would be putting everyone’s water supply at risk if that occurred.”

The group tasked with addressing the opportunities listed in the report comprises stakeholders from water management groups, federal and state agencies and recreation groups. Together, they are working to determine which of the listed opportunities are feasible for immediate action and which will take a longer-term approach.

The identified opportunities include spill management, base flow management, geomorphic processes in terms of sediment, geomorphic processes in terms of habitat, thermal regime modification, reduction of coldwater species effects in terms of general species, reduction of coldwater species in terms of brown trout, reduction of warm water invasive species effect in terms of smallmouth bass and an effort to supplement native fish.

Preston said the immediate focus of the group is on what actions can be taken within the framework of spill management to impact the health of the native species.

“The discussion has come to a pretty good consensus on most of the issues and really the outstanding issue is the flows,” he said. “In the past the releases were really aimed at rafting and supporting trout fishing 10 to 11 miles below the dam. What we have to figure out is what is going to benefit the native fish. They have become a greater priority, and we need to determine how to manage flows if our objective is to protect native species, as well as allowing opportunities for trout fishing and rafting.”

Preston said a wide range of stakeholders have been pulled together to work on the project, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Trout Unlimited, American Whitewater, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and The Nature Conservancy.

“We had to get the principal actors, especially those with institutional responsibilities, together to come to agreement and work the issue,” Preston said.

In terms of spill management, the group had begun to study how changes in flow might impact the native fish. One consideration is river temperature and how to postpone spawning until the largest influx of water has passed.

“We are looking at possibly making the spills more gradual to keep the water cool,” Preston said. “The river warms before the spills, and that is a spawning cue, then we dump cold water on them. If we can keep that temperature below where they spawn then we will actually be able to time the spill so we are not disturbing their spawn.”

Using spill management to negatively impact invasive and predatory species is also part of the group’s consideration, Preston said. Using a large influx of water to pull male smallmouth bass off of spawning nests would decrease the likelihood of a successful spawn in that species, which has proved to be troublesome to the native fish.

“We are learning that one of the things that really drives the spawning cycle is water temperatures and we are learning we can use that to our advantage in many different ways,” Preston said. “We are focusing a lot on monitoring thermal conditions.”

Preston said the group hopes to have a spill management plan in place by next year so the group can begin to measure the impact of different strategies.

“One commitment we’ve made is that by June of 2012 we are going to have an implementation plan,” he said. “Some of it will be fairly easy and some might take time, but we want to be able to begin studying the results of spill management next year.”

Both Preston and Porter-Norton expressed excitement over the possibilities of the project, particularly in terms of avoiding federal threatened or endangered listings for the fish or a Wild and Scenic listing for the river itself.

“There is widespread agreement among the different stakeholders that we do not want a listing to happen,” Porter-Norton said. “I am very enthused about this work and think it will really benefit the river.”

Preston said the water supply remains the group’s primary cause.

“We all have the same goal, and that is the water supply,” he said. “If we don’t do our part in terms of managing for these species we could end up losing our water, and everyone has a stake in that river. There is an overlap in the value placed on the native species and the need for the water on farms, ranches and communities. The thing driving us to work together is that by taking care of the fish we are protecting our water supplies. That is what allows us to make positive headway.”

Reach Kimberly Benedict at kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com.