CUTTHROAT TROUT RESTORED IN LITTLE SNAKE RIVER DRAINAGE
BAGGS—On August 7, 800 Colorado River cutthroat trout were released into headwater streams of the Little Snake River, as part of a multi-year, multi-agency project to restore the cutthroat to its native range.
Crews from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Forest Service, Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, used backpacks to carry the young cutthroat trout to their new home in Haggerty, Bachelor, Vole and Deep Creeks. The fry (young fish) were trucked into the backcountry using a small Game and Fish stocking truck. The stocking truck, driven by Josh Skolmutch of Daniel Fish Hatchery, was just the right size to travel the rough and rocky roads leading into the fish stocking sites.
Colorado River cutthroat trout (CRCT) historically occupied portions of the Colorado River drainage in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. CRCT was the only species of trout found in the Little Snake River prior to settlement of the area during the early 19th Century. By 1883, the West’s cutthroat populations had already been decimated due to importation of exotic trout via the newly completed transcontinental railroad.
By the mid-1880s, rainbow and brook trout fry were brought in from Wisconsin and California. Unfortunately, the brook trout ate cutthroat eggs and fry and competed with the native cutthroat for habitat and forage. The rainbows interbred with the native fish and hybridized the species. Cutthroat habitat and range diminished over time with the mining activity on Haggerty Creek. Biologists believe the CRCT occupies less than 14% of its historical range.
Green River fisheries biologist Bill Wengert says efforts to manage and increase the number of stream miles occupied by Colorado River cutthroat trout began in the 1970s.
“Beginning in the mid-1970s headwater streams were closed to angling, non-native trout were no longer stocked, and fish barriers, like the one at Haggerty Creek, were constructed to prevent brook trout from moving upstream,” Wengert said. “By the early 21st Century 111 miles of stream in the Little Snake River Drainage in Wyoming contain the cutthroat.”
Wengert says barriers are a physical block or obstacle to the movement or migration of fish. They may be natural, such as a waterfall, or man-made, like the Haggerty Creek fish barrier.
“There are two natural and eight man-made fish barriers within the cutthroat restoration area. Barrier placement, along with chemical treatments to remove non-native fish, and stocking of pure Colorado River cutthroat, combine to protect and enhance cutthroat populations.”
Water quality in the region has also been influenced by previous mining operations.
Several copper mines once flourished in the Sierra Madre Mountains during the period 1898 to 1908. The Ferris-Haggarty Mine on the headwaters of Haggarty Creek was the largest, producing 24 million tons of copper during its brief existence. However, copper laden effluent water has seeped from the mine ever since, polluting Haggarty Creek from its point of discharge downstream for a distance of about four-stream miles. That portion of Haggarty Creek has been found to be biologically sterile, but historically contained Colorado River cutthroat trout.
A lawsuit was filed by the State of Wyoming against the current mine owner in 1991 and 1992. The State held the owner liable for the copper contamination of Haggarty Creek. The owner was not able to finance the pollution abatement project and the clean up was then taken over by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Abandoned Mine Land Division (WDEQ/AML). In the fall of 1993 a proposed treatment for the contamination was submitted to the WDEQ/AML and is currently being tested on a small scale.
Wengert says fish population estimates indicate brook trout are found throughout the Battle Creek Drainage, but Colorado River cutthroat trout have are now gone in most of the streams in the drainage.
“However, small, remnant populations of CRCT have been discovered in three tributaries to Haggarty Creek and the Belvidere Ditch,” Wengert said. “ Cutthroat trout have been collected or observed in the lower portion of Haggarty Creek above its confluence with the West Fork of Battle Creek. Apparently, copper pollution from the Ferris-Haggarty Mine is diminished in the
first four miles of stream below the mine.”
In the summer of 2006 two interpretive signs were installed on Highway 70 where Haggerty Creek crosses the highway to explain to Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest visitors and anglers the stream restoration work being done by the agencies for CRCT.
The interpretive signs are the result of the cooperative project between the US Forest Service, Game and Fish and the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT). Funding for the interpretive sign project came from the Governor’s Big Game License Coalition, WYDOT and the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
Wengert says Game and Fish and the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest continue working together to improve and protect existing habitat, as well as expand the range of cutthroat trout.
For more information on Colorado River cutthroat trout restoration efforts access the Game and Fish Web site or the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.