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 Native trout restoration

The DWR plans to return native Colorado River cutthroats to Ferron Creek.

Paul Birdsey
Paul is the aquatics manager in the DWR's Southeast Region. He describes himself as the world's only limnologist, planner, database programmer, hypersaline system ecologist, financial manager and fisheries administrator. In his free time, Paul can usually be found fishing.

The Colorado River cutthroat trout is a subspecies of trout endemic to the Green and Colorado River drainages. (“Endemic” means that the species is not found anywhere else in the world.) The historic range of the trout has declined over the years due to a handful of factors, including:

  • Hybridization (cross-breeding with other fish species)
  • Competition with non-native species
  • Human influences such as water development and land-use changes

In the 1990s, declines in the trout’s historic range led certain groups to petition that it be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has since determined that the fish is not warranted for listing, the court battles to overturn that decision continue.

Spawning Colorado River cutthroat trout at Duck Fork Reservoir

One of the main points of contention in the lawsuits is the extent of decline in the trout’s historic range. Since the first petition for listing was received, the states of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado — as well as federal land management agencies — have undertaken an aggressive program of restoring Colorado River cutthroat trout.

To date, these actions have convinced the courts that the subspecies is not currently in danger of going extinct in any part of its range, and that the work being done will continue regardless of the legal status of the Colorado River cutthroat trout.

However, the one area of the historic range that is still under-represented in the restoration activities is southeastern Utah. To increase populations in this part of the state, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has been trying to identify a pure population of Colorado River cutthroat trout and to develop a broodstock which could be used to re-populate restored areas. Those obstacles have finally been overcome, and we are ready to move to the restoration phase.

For our first restoration project, we identified Ferron Creek as the best location. Ferron Creek, located west of the town of Ferron, was selected for a number of reasons:

  1. The stream is located almost entirely on the Manti-La Sal Forest, so impacts to local landowners could be minimized.
  2. The broodstock lake for the Colorado River cutthroat trout is situated at the headwaters of the stream, so there is easy access to the fish.
  3. Finally, Ferron Creek and its tributaries comprise about 47 miles of stream. A project this large — on interconnected streams — creates what is known as a “metapopulation.” Simply put, this is a population that is large enough to be self-sustaining and is not likely to be eliminated by a local catastrophe like a forest fire.

The project has been in the planning phase for a while. We have consulted with the U.S. Forest Service, Emery County Commissioners, local water users in the Ferron Creek drainage, and cattle grazers in the affected allotments to make sure that everyone is aware of the project and that there would be minimal impacts to any private interest. Because the upper end of the drainage is located in Sanpete County, we will soon meet with the county commission there to identify any of their concerns.

There are a number of small reservoirs in the drainage which may be converted to Colorado River cutthroat trout, or have sterile fish stocked to prevent hybridization. However, regardless of whether Colorado River cutthroat trout are stocked into these reservoirs, the DWR does not anticipate the need for special regulations to protect the fish in these waters — except for Duck Fork Reservoir — which will retain its status as the broodstock lake.

This is the fish trap at Duck Fork Reservoir, which is the broodstock lake for the region's Colorado River cutthroat trout.

The conversion of Ferron Creek drainage to Colorado River cutthroat trout is a huge project that will take a minimum of four or five years to complete. We hope to start in the fall of 2011 by chemically treating Ferron Reservoir to remove the non-native brook trout and rainbow trout. A second treatment will take place in early 2012 to assure a complete removal of non-natives. Right after the second treatment, the reservoir will be restocked with sterile rainbow trout, Colorado River cutthroat trout and, perhaps, sterile brook trout.

We will then proceed to treat Ferron Creek and its tributaries and other small reservoirs in phases starting at the top of the drainage and working our way down towards Millsite Reservoir. Temporary barriers will be constructed at key areas to prevent re-invasion of non-natives into treated sections as we move downstream. Willow Lake and Wrigley Springs Reservoir were switched to sterile rainbow trout a couple of years ago and will not require treatment. There also will not be a need to treat Millsite Reservoir because a permanent barrier will be placed upstream of the reservoir to prevent migration of non-native fish from the reservoir into the stream.

Each section of the project will be treated at least twice then restocked with pure Colorado River cutthroat trout, and perhaps tiger trout. Because large areas of the stream are inaccessible except by foot, we may not need to have special regulations to protect cutthroat trout throughout the entire stream, but they may be necessary on more accessible areas. This will be determined through consultation with the public as the project proceeds.

The introduction of a species that has been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act into an area is a scary thing for local governments, water users and cattle grazers because of the possible impacts that might arise if the species is eventually warranted for listing. However, it is precisely projects like this that may help prevent listing. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recognizes the concerns of the local users, and greatly appreciates the cooperation and support of all of our partners in this project to restore the native Colorado River cutthroat trout to Ferron Creek.

10 Responses to Native trout restoration

  1. Great story Paul.
    I have been interested it this project from the start. I’m pleased to see it moving forward.

  2. Justin Craddock

    Thanks for the interesting read! I’m wondering, however, what the strain of cutthroat is that already resides in Millsite Reservoir and Ferron Creek.

    Are similar plans in place for the other creeks (Huntington, Straight Canyon) in the area?

  3. Justin Hart, UDWR

    The Ferron Creek drainage, aside from Duck Fork Reservoir contains nonnative cutthroat trout and a few rainbow and tiger trout. The cutthroat trout genetics are dominated by Yellowstone cutthroat trout genes, with a little rainbow trout mixed in. We currently have no cutthroat trout restoration plans in the Joes Valley or Huntington Creek drainage.

  4. How will this change the fishing regulations at Ferron Reservoir? My kids and I enjoy this lake and have for years, it would be sad if it changed to the restrictions that are present at Duck Fork which make it almost impossible for young children to catch fish. Also what will fishing look like for the summer of 2012?

  5. This seems like an increadible waste of our tax dollars. Ferron creek is one of my favorite places to fish, because you can catch a wide variety of fish and they are much bigger than you would expect in such a small creek. In just an hour of fishing a few years ago, I caught a brook, rainbow, tiger and brown trout in a 100 yard streatch of the lower creek above Millsite reservoir. One of them was at least 18 inches. Now this project will ruin the fishing in this creek for several years, and I’m sure it will require a bunch of complicated regulations in the future. Why not focus on maintaining the Colorado Cutthroat population in the places where they already exist? Poisoning the creek to get rid of non-native fish has to be damaging to other species. I’ve found that the streams with the healthiest fish populations, are the ones that nobody messes with. I know of several streams that are never planted, and have healthy, self sustaining populations of fish. Also, what happens to all the dead fish? Think of all the poor people you could feed with those fish. Before just killing thousands of fish, you should have a year of no-restriction fishing (including nets) with no limits so that as many fish can be eaten as possible. Allow the fish to be commercially sold to attract more people and I’ll bet 99% of the fish would be gone. In the fishing regulations it says it’s illegal to waste fish, but the DWR wastes fish all the time.

  6. When rotenone is applied to a river or lake with the intention of eradicating a target fish species, all fish, amphibians and invertebrates are vulnerable to extermination. Rotenone is not selective. Therefore, it is extremely dangerous to wildlife. Moreover, the loss of aquatic species eradicates the food supply for birds and other near-shore animals. This can interrupt bird diversity, nesting and reproduction for several years.

  7. Great project! Looking forward to fishing for indigenous trout of the USA. I wish non-indigenous trout were never stocked in the first place, especially trout from Europe.

  8. Arizona and the EPA have approved the use of rotenone. Indigenous people used rotenone to kill fish for consumption.

  9. What is going on with Electric Lake? When the lake was built, the DWR stated that it would be a cutthroat fishery only. Now I see that both Rainbow and Tigers are being taken, when did the policy change.
    The reestablishment of Colorado Cutthroats is great. Keep it going, it would be great to see them back in other streams like Scad Valley, Beaver Creek, White River and others.

  10. Brook Trout are non-native? So! How long have they been here? By your definition, every person in America whose ancestors came from somewhere else is a non-native. If it was born here, it’s native. Brook Trout are nice fish and I resent the DWR’s war against it, and the Rainbow too. Why are other such non-native species fostered, such as Tiger Muskie? What about the German Brown? Then there’s all the money spent on sterile hybrids. Going further, what about the Chinese Ringnecked Pheasant, Hungarian Partridge, Chukar, etc.? What are the criteria for which species get the axe and others get the green light? The DWR meddles too much, IMO.

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