A Colorado River Cutthroat Trout: restoring a native trout stronghold
By Randy Scholfield
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. –Aldo Leopold
You need a pretty tough hide to be in the stream restoration business. Where most of us see a pristine valley or river, biologists understand what’s been lost, and what it will take to recover some semblance of ecological health.
We’re standing on the bank of Armstrong Creek, high in the mountains of northwest Colorado. On this day, a group of gung-ho volunteers from Shell have made the long trek on bumpy forest roads to this remote, spectacular valley, called California Park. They listen as biologists from Trout Unlimited and the U.S. Forest Service explain how to plant willows, sedges and other native plants along the muddy banks. The workday unfolds, amid laughter, a flurry of activity planting plugs in the muddy banks, and aching backs.
Armstrong Creek doesn’t look like much—it’s small enough to step across. But it’s a key part of a much larger restoration vision coming together in the upper Elkhead watershed. TU and its partners are trying to solve a complex puzzle: How to put the pieces of a 30-mile watershed back together? How to restore an entire functioning, interconnected landscape?
“A common shortcoming of restoration projects is that the scale of treatment is too small to produce the desired effect,” said biologist Brian Hodge, TU’s project manager for northwest Colorado.
He explained that at the reach scale, restoration may improve habitat and result in localized increases in fish abundance, but it will not necessarily increase the total fish population. By working at the watershed scale, here and elsewhere in the West, TU and partners hope to restore healthy habitat and create “metapopulations”: large, interconnected and interbreeding populations of fish that can better withstand the assaults of nature and humans, from drought and development to climate change.
First thing to understand: Everything we see—from creeks to uplands to mainstem—as well as much of what we don’t see (underground water table), is connected in a complex web of relationships and impacts.
Humans are inescapably part of the landscape here in California Park.
Rick Henderson, a Forest Service biologist, tells the assembled group about some of the human history of California Park, which is not immediately apparent to the untrained eye. Settlers discovered this area in the late 1800s—there were homesteads, logging camps, and stock driveways. In more recent years, livestock, elk, and herbicide application influenced the riparian landscape. Over decades, a variety of impacts resulted in soil and plant loss, eroded upland slopes, and widened, shallow stream channels—on this stretch of Armstrong, the channel flattened out to 12 feet wide and a few inches deep. Not good habitat for fish.
“If we can narrow the channel up, get vegetation going, we can get a healthy fish population going,” Henderson says. He brings out a plastic tub of water and shows the group some native fish they’ve collected that morning: speckled dace, mottled sculpin, mountain sucker, and Colorado River Cutthroat Trout.
They are evidence that these streams are still alive and wild.
Shell employees and other volunteers help plant willow plugs on bank of Armstrong Creek.
Colorado River cutts were once plentiful throughout the upper Elkhead watershed. On a recent survey, though, Henderson found only 2 cutts in a 400-foot stretch. He said he would expect to find about 50 cutts in a healthy stretch of the same length.
From a biological perspective, much of the watershed is damaged, impoverished.
There had been talk, on and off in recent years, of restoring the Elkhead drainage. But the task seemed daunting, and bigger than any one group.
A few years ago, TU, the Forest Service, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) agreed to make a run at it. But where to begin? Only one thing was clear: with finite resources and approximately 30 miles of stream to choose from, the approach would need to be strategic.
To assist with prioritization, TU hired a contractor to develop a conceptual plan for restoring the upper Elkhead watershed. The plan identified 54 separate stream segments and prescribed up to $3.8 million in restoration. Based on the conceptual plan and numerous discussions, TU, the USFS, and CPW decided to dig in at Armstrong Creek. Armstrong was suffering from an overall loss of proper structure and function.
They began pulling together a team of stakeholders. Additional partners and contributors include the Routt County Conservation District, Shell, Tri-State, the City of Craig, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Yampa-White Basin Roundtable, and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“This project illustrates the effectiveness of partnerships,” said Hodge. “We’ve come a long way in a relatively short amount of time.” Upstream, TU and Forest Service biologists found “reference reaches”: intact segments of stream that serve as visual examples of the desired outcome. Using those as a guideline, they began restoring lower stretches of Armstrong Creek, including this section we’re at today. Here, they plotted meanders and riffle-pool sequences that mimicked the upstream stretch. They brought in a trackhoe to reroute the creek away from eroding hillsides, stabilize failing streambanks, and narrow the channel.
Today, the goal was to finish replanting the newly restored stream channel. The vegetation—sedges, willows, and alders—will anchor streambanks, reduce water velocity, and provide cover and cooling shade for trout and other native fishes.
“Our riparian areas and wetlands are our biggest reservoirs—by far,” said Liz Schnackenberg, a hydrologist with the Forest Service. They hold vast amounts of water in the landscape, she noted, helping to recharge the water table and providing critical habitat for trout and migrating birds.
Today, Colorado River cutthroat inhabit only 14 percent of their historical range. But they are survivors. Trout Unlimited would like to see them thrive again.
What would success look like up here in California Park, say 10 or 15 years from now?
The partners want this watershed to look more like it did at the turn of the last century, with more robust fish and wildlife populations.
Jennifer Holmlund, a Shell employee from Craig, knows this area well.
“I am a native of Routt County, so this is something that pulls at my heartstrings,” she said of the restoration work. “Just up the hill is where we used to camp and fish when I was a kid. This was our playground.”
“In 20 years, if I can fish with my son up here, that would be great,” says Jackie Brown, a project partner with the Routt County Conservation District.
Yes, we’re living in a world of wounds.
But the work of healing here at Armstrong Creek gives hope.
Randy Scholfield is communications director for TU’s Western Water Project.