Lessons from previous droughts help endangered fish recovery

As Northwest Colorado prepares for what could be a summer of record-setting drought, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program will use lessons learned from previous droughts to direct this year’s endangered fish recovery actions, U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced in a press release.

Knowledge of fish spawning patterns, movements and habitat preferences during low-flow periods will enable biologists to focus their efforts on how to best assist in the recovery of endangered Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail and humpback chub. Like every year since the Recovery Program began in 1988, those efforts will occur throughout nearly 900 miles of the Colorado, Gunnison, Green, White and Yampa rivers in Colorado and Utah, according to the release.

“In years like this it is important to closely manage flows during the heat of the summer,” Recovery Program Director Tom Chart said in the release. “The endangered fish are hearty, long-lived species that evolved over thousands of years and have survived periods of both extreme high flows as well as drought. Last year, the fish experienced some of the highest flows in recent history. We hope the favorable river conditions we saw last year carry the endangered fish populations through what is shaping up as an extreme drought year.”

Endangered fish recovery requires establishing and maintaining self-sustaining populations of endangered fishes and reducing the threats to their survival by managing flows, stocking hatcheries, obtaining population estimates and controlling nonnative species that prey on native fish, according to the release.

To cope with drought conditions the Recovery Program will use water leases, contracts and other agreements established during its 24-year history to maintain the adequate river flows needed by endangered fish to spawn and grow. All flows are provided in accordance with state water law, individual water rights and interstate compacts, according to the release.

In the past 15 years biologists learned that low flows and warmer than average temperatures benefit nonnative smallmouth bass in the Yampa River, according to the release.

“Since then, biologists have identified prime smallmouth bass spawning habitat, can predict the height of spawning activity, and have adapted their coordinated nonnative fish removal efforts,” Recovery Program Nonnative Fish Coordinator Patrick Martinez said in the release. “This year we really need to draw on those past experiences to keep smallmouth bass and other nonnative species in check.”

Depending on river reach, biologists may remove nonnative smallmouth bass and northern pike. In some instances white sucker, walleye and burbot will also be removed. All of these nonnative fish species pose a significant threat to endangered fish because they compete for food and space in the river and may eat the eggs, young, or even adults of endangered fish, according to the release.

For more information, visit the Recovery Program’s website at ColoradoRiverRecovery.org or call 303-969-7322, ext. 227.

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