For kids, making the map real

High school kids plant willows on Gooseberry Creek

by Nick Walrath

Most people cross over Gooseberry Creek and don’t even notice it. Maybe they are staring at the vast sagebrush hills, hoping to catch a glimpse of the trophy elk, deer or antelope in the area. Maybe they’re looking at the skeletons of the conifer and juniper trees left by the 2002 wildfires that raced through the area. Whatever they are looking at on their ride through the Greater Little Mountain area--the “Serengeti” of Wyoming--very few probably notice this small creek.

However, there is a small group of high school kids from Green River that will now notice Gooseberry Creek.

This summer Josh Coursey, the CEO of a great local non-profit organization, Muley Fanatic Foundation, Kevin Spence, the aquatic habitat biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, members of the Seedskadee Chapter of TU and I took a small group of Green River High School kids out to do some willow planting on a small creek where a fish passage project was just completed. To have the kids out planting willows on this particular project site was a very fulfilling moment. Project partners have been working on fish passage issues on this little stream for three years. This summer the third and final barrier was removed and, for the first time in decades, the upper two miles of Gooseberry Creek are accessible to Colorado River cutthroat trout.

You might think that two miles isn’t much, but out here in the desert, these upper two miles could allow refuge for enough fish to make it through a drought, wildfire or flood and repopulate the lower reaches and keep the fishery in Trout Creek and Gooseberry Creek viable. These two miles are also great spawning and rearing habitat.

For native trout, biologists make maps with colored lines showing the current distribution of populations of trout over-lapping their historic distribution. One look at the Colorado River cutthroat trout map and anyone can see that these fish aren’t doing great. I recently attended the Colorado River cutthroat trout range-wide conservation team meeting. At this meeting fisheries biologists from Utah, Colorado and Wyoming report on the years’ accomplishments and findings. Biologists talk about what worked, what didn’t, what they learned and ultimately extend or shrink those colored lines on the map. This is all done so the status of the population as a whole is known and the heartbeat of the population is monitored.

All the work in fundraising, planning and permitting a project like the Gooseberry Creek project is culminated in the extension of a small colored squiggly line on a map. A line that most wouldn’t even notice changed.  I looked at the little line on Gooseberry Creek that will be extended. I then looked at all of the little lines with more detail--most in very remote places--and at that moment those lines became real. Most are places I haven’t been to, but now feel the need to go and see. These are places, for the most part, we all can go to experience a Colorado River cutthroat. We have all heard, in some form, “it's not the fish, it’s the experience."  Sitting at that meeting, listening to all the great work each of the states' passionate biologists are doing to protect and improve the status of fish, I gained a better understanding of just how many great success stories are out there--and what all of those little squiggly lines represent in terms of improved habitat and fishing opportunities.

Maybe these fish aren’t doing great, but they have a fighting chance because of all the great people behind them.

I hope those high school kids go back to Gooseberry Creek and see those willows they planted, and experience a healthy Colorado River cutthroat. When it comes down to it, it’s about giving these populations the best chance we can.  We all want our kids to have a chance to bounce in the pickup, walk a stream and catch a beautiful trout in a beautiful place. Then those little colored lines on the map become real.

Nick Walrath is TU's Green River Project Manager.

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