Trout Unlimited and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have teamed up to protect, reconnect and restore entire watersheds and their native fish communities. According to TU Senior Scientist Jack Williams, native trout often become the focal points for these larger projects because we know more about trout than most other fish in the watersheds and if the streams can support trout, they are likely to be good for the other native species as well.
In the Colorado River Basin, bluehead suckers and Colorado River cutthroat have a lot in common. Both are rare, both are sensitive indicator species for state and federal agencies, and historically at least, both occurred in the same stream systems. With encouragement from the Bureau of Land Management and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), TU scientists were asked to identify watersheds where both the native cutthroat and other rare native stream fishes remained in the Upper Colorado River Basin. If we could find some places where entire native fish communities could be conserved, NFWF would support and fund restoration efforts.
The first find was in Muddy Creek, a small drainage in the Little Snake Watershed of Wyoming where Wyoming Game & Fish was already working on stream restoration. With new support from NFWF, it appears we can extend a small population of native cutthroat trout from the headwaters downstream into what we hope is a bigger and soon-to-be healthier stream system.
One advantage of working on entire watersheds is that we can implement the entire Protect-Reconnect-Restore-Sustain strategy. Expanding native trout from protected headwaters downstream into larger, interconnected stream systems is vital to their long-term survival. When native trout are isolated in small headwater streams they are much more vulnerable to flooding, persistent drought, or wildfires in their watershed. If we can reconnect streams by restoring flows and removing instream barriers, we give the fish a chance to find suitable habitat in hard times, explained Dr. Dan Dauwalter, one of the lead TU scientists on the project.
As it turns out, native trout are a great indicator species for healthy streams and make a good starting point for efforts to protect entire native fish communities. Whether we are working on native brook trout in the mid-Atlantic or bull trout in the Rockies, if the stream can support healthy populations of native trout, they can support other native species as well. In some drainages of the Colorado River, there might even be some bluehead suckers thrown in for good measure.
The Donner und Blitzen River in southeastern Oregon is a good example of a watershed that protects not only native redband trout, but also a whole collection of native aquatic species.