Grand Valley Anglers Chapter of Trout Unlimited has been involved with restoring native trout populations on the Roan Plateau for 15 years, and the chapter is concerned that gas drilling on top of the plateau could endanger some of the trout it has tried to preserve. A population of pure Colorado River Cutthroat trout in Trapper Creek was protected, and its range extended, by an extensive program of cattle exclosures, drop structures and planting of willows and cottonwoods.
Drought and violations of some of the exclosures set back the program, but the beautiful native trout have hung on until now. BLM’s plan for gas leases on top of the plateau suggests that streams and trout will be protected, but the plan falls far short of assuring that. Therefore the chapter plans to monitor the area more frequently, in an attempt to ensure that gas drilling does not come too close to Trapper Creek. Grand Valley Anglers also hopes to form an alliance with Ferdinand Hayden Chapter to collect water-quality analyses, and perhaps expand native-trout restoration to other streams on the Roan Plateau.
GVA’s Trapper Creek project is about 12 miles northwest of Rifle, Colorado, on the Roan Plateau. The project area is upstream from the confluence with Northwater Creek, which joins with Trapper Creek to form the East Middle Fork of Parachute Creek, which flows onto private land before it plunges off the plateau in a spectacular waterfall.
The small creek is home to a pure strain of Colorado River Cutthroat trout (CRCT). GVA s involvement with the stream began in 1991, when, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) we began planting willows and narrow-leaf cottonwoods, and building log and rock structures along the creek. Also, we enclosed two stretches of the stream inside fences (a.k.a. exclosures, meaning they keep cattle and vehicles out). We protected some of the willows and most of the cottonwoods with cages made of wire fencing. Many GVA members participated, and we drew on our treasury and a grant or two.
Trapper Creek had long suffered from grazing by cattle. As a result, banks were broken down, and much of it was too wide, too shallow, and too warm to be good habitat for the native trout. Over several years, our work began to restore the stream, so that the natives began to extend their range farther upstream. Subsequent visits to Trapper Creek showed that our work was highly successful, especially inside the exclosures. GVA members caught and released numbers of the pretty trout, up to 14 inches in length.
Then along came the current drought and some mysterious breaches of the exclosures. Cattle resumed their destructive ways. The drought made the stream intermittent in the upper reach, so that trout were concentrated in small pools. Many died, and reportedly were eaten by bears. Colorado Division of Wildlife employees chased the cattle out, repaired the fence, and removed as many of the surviving trout as they could catch to the Glenwood Springs hatchery. There, before they could be separated, the adult trout devoured the little ones. Nevertheless, enough survived to spawn at the hatchery, and later some were restored to the stream.
On September 29, 2006, for the first time in several years, GVA members (Doug Diekman, John Trammell, Pat Oglesby, and Dan Powell) visited Trapper Creek, to evaluate its condition, and consider what else might be done to protect the stream and its native trout. Doug doubled as a BLM representative. Daily Sentinel Outdoors reporter Dave Buchanan also participated in the expedition. We had hoped for participation by CDOW, but that could not be arranged.
In the upper exclosure, we found that cattle had been inside, both in this and previous years. In numerous places the cattle had made the banks slough into the creek, and they had eaten the grass down close to the ground. It would have been a complete disaster, had not GVA s trees kept the stream narrow and deeper in most places (we had planted lots of trees). Because of the drought, only a few inches of water flowed, and in places the stream was intermittent. The pools where we’d seen so many trout years before were dry. Neither the log nor rock dams were functioning. In places, the fence was in bad condition. We had the impression that were it not for the recent snow (patches still existed in shady spots), perhaps this stretch would have contained even less water, and may even have been dry during the summer.
In the downstream exclosure, conditions were dramatically better. Cattle obviously had not been inside, so banks were stable. Deer and elk sign were plentiful. Most of the caged willows had been browsed down to the tops of the cages. Grass was tall, or would have been, had it not been laid down by the recent snow. In places, fallen grass completely covered the narrow stream, making it difficult to see fish. Nevertheless, we spotted 5 CRCT.
It was a gorgeous autumn day on Trapper Creek, with golden aspens on the slopes above the creek. We found that BLM had erected a new informational sign about the project, between the two exclosures, and had instituted a new travel-management plan that excludes vehicles from the valley below the sign.
Future Work at Trapper Creek
Although the logs in a couple of the 16 log structures were still in place, not one was fully functional. Frankly, this is because when we built them, we didn’t know enough about what we were doing. Since then, GVA members have attended a seminar on stream restoration conducted by an expert. Were we to rebuild the structures according to his techniques, I m confident they would be more effective, and last a long time. But should we? I think probably not, at least not all of them as long as the drought persists, and that could be a very long time.
On the other hand, it could be worthwhile to engage the services of a stream-restoration expert. The idea would be to determine if it would be a good idea to rebuild two or three strategically placed structures, in order to see how they function during runoff, and to gain experience on correct construction techniques. Also, they would provide habitat, should the native trout re-ascend the stream during a period of more precipitation. Doug used a GPS receiver to map the locations of the log structures.
Other things that the chapter could do for Trapper Creek and its native cutthroats would be to repair the fence around the upper exclosure, and begin a series of routine visits in order to monitor the cattle. It would be easy to rebuild the rock dams, but that would have to be done almost annually. We might consider extending our work farther downstream, where stream flows likely will persist during the drought. We also need to monitor gas drilling activity in the area. From where we parked, we could see a rig on the horizon, but it was too far away to have an effect on Trapper Creek.
The native trout of Trapper Creek have survived drought and even cattle in the past. However, they were barely hanging on when we got involved, and were likely to go the way of some other native-trout populations that have disappeared from the plateau in the recent past. They clearly can handle natural difficulties, but need help when threatened by human activities, and this may include the current gas-drilling splurge on the Roan Plateau.
One thing perhaps the most important thing that impressed me on our latest visit is the necessity of monitoring a project like Trapper Creek. Things had fallen into disrepair since our last visit. Once established, the trees are good for a long time, but we can’t build structures and fences and expect them to take care of themselves. They need maintenance to repair the effects of cattle invasions and runoff.
GVA has been looking after the trout of Trapper Creek for 15 years. Surely, we shouldn’t abandon them now, when they are threatened by drought and drilling. These beautiful native cutthroats are worth GVA s continued support.