The native dilemma

Hermosa Creek cutthroat project mixes opinions

On the whole, Durango's angling community is "divided" on the issue, according to Ty Churchwell, vice-president of the local Five Rivers Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

by Will Sands

The push is on to go native in the headwaters of Hermosa Creek. The Colorado Division of Wildlife and San Juan National Forest are currently working to reverse the local decline of the native Colorado River cutthroat trout. However, the reintroduction effort, which focuses on the drainage's headwaters, has also drawn mixed reviews.

The Colorado River cutthroat, the only trout species native to western Colorado, was abundant in rivers through the mid-1800s. At that time, human settlement arrived in the San Juan Mountains, and the fish were over-harvested. Early residents of the area recognized the need to restore the balance in the Animas, San Juan, Florida and Pine rivers, and they imported rainbow, brook and brown trout from outside the region and began stocking them in the area's waterways. These fish, and particularly the brook trout, eventually outcompeted the native cutthroats, leading to the current situation. Only a few pockets of the original fish remain in the San Juans, and the cutthroats have been designated a Species of Special Concern by the DOW and a Sensitive Species by the Forest Service.

"When you have a combination of species, the brook trout typically outcompete the others," explained Mike Japhet, senior aquatic biologist for the DOW. "If we did nothing, the entire upper Hermosa Creek area would be completely populated by brook trout in a number of years."

The DOW is doing something in the upper Hermosa watershed, however. Faced with the threat of an "endangered" designation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency is continuing its efforts to bring the native fish back to the San Juan Mountains.

"This project is certainly one that is a high priority," Japhet said. "The Forest Service and DOW have agreed that preventing the listing of this species as ‘endangered' is a good thing to do. It's a situation where an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure."

This ounce of prevention actually got under way in 1992 on the East Fork of Hermosa Creek. At that time, a hold-out population of pure Colorado River cutthroat trout was discovered in a remote stream within the Weminuche Wilderness. The DOW then identified that East Fork of Hermosa Creek, located near Purgatory, as an ideal stream to reintroduce the natives. More than a decade later, that population is now flourishing.

"The project on East Hermosa Creek is doing very well," Japhet said. "It's a very stable, very robust population of cutthroats up there."

That 1992 discovery also led to the creation of a Weminuche strain of Colorado River cutthroat trout. Spawn taken from that original discovery has been used to establish a brood stock at the Durango fish hatchery. Since 2005, fingerlings from that stock have been seeded into remote streams and high-mountain lakes throughout the region. Now the DOW plans to stock the native fingerlings into another stretch of Hermosa Creek - 4 miles of the stream's upper reaches above Hotel Draw.

Japhet explained that the upper Hermosa Creek drainage offers the DOW a unique opportunity to restore the natives in close proximity to the East Fork population. With the current project, the agency will reintroduce the fish into 4 miles of upper Hermosa Creek and 1 mile of Corral Creek. To accomplish this, the Forest Service recently built a five-foot waterfall barrier on the stream to isolate the new fish from other trout and potential predation.

Next summer, the stretches will be treated with rotenone, a short-lived botanical pesticide, to kill the existing, healthy population of mixed trout species. Widely used for the last 80 years, rotenone does not harm other species and breaks down completely within 48 hours. Thirty days after the application, the fingerlings will be introduced and special regulations will be implemented to protect the fledgling population.

Though the introduction is intended to be beneficial, it has drawn criticism and split the local flyfishing community. Some have criticized the DOW for destroying one population of fish to create another. Another group of anglers has said that the project will harm their ability to fish on a favorite stretch of water.

On the whole, Durango's angling community is "divided" on the issue, according to Ty Churchwell, vice-president of the local Five Rivers Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

"We can't even come up with a uniform opinion about the project amongst our board," he said. "We took a straw poll at our last meeting, and we don't have strong consensus in one direction or another and can't make a formal statement about the reintroduction."

However, for his part, Churchwell strongly advocates the reintroduction and restoring a local section of stream to the conditions of 125 years ago. "My personal opinion is that I am all for it," he said. "I'd like to see things restored to native genetics as closely as possible. This is a section that the public will be able to drive to, fish and catch a cutthroat trout that is as genetically pure as possible."

Churchwell and Japhet also disputed the claims that the reintroduction will damage the Durango fishing experience. They noted that local anglers have hundreds of miles of stream at their disposal and can readily fish the 23-mile stretch of lower Hermosa Creek as well as countless other similar streams.

"There are so many people who love to fish up there, and they don't care what kind of trout they catch," Churchwell said. "But there are also hundreds of miles of stream just like that in the San Juans, and we're talking about reintroducing natives on one little section."

Japhet added that the project is about reestablishing the viability of an animal species. He asked that anglers endure a temporary disruption in recreation to help accomplish a greater goal.

"We're certainly sensitive to the fact that people are concerned about impacts to their recreational fishing," he said. "But we feel like the short-term disruption will be far outweighed by the benefits of enhancing the habitat and creating a new area for people to fish for these natives. When you restore a native species, it's a win-win for everyone." •