Group pours years into protecting, reviving Roan Plateau creek

Volunteers from around the state spent a day earlier this month planting willows along Trapper Creek on the Roan Plateau, improving the habitat for a small population of pure Colorado River cutthroat trout. The fish are threatened by a variety of sources, including loss of habitat, energy development and livestock grazing.

Nearly two decades after the local Trout Unlimited chapter unofficially adopted Trapper Creek, a small stream burbling from the sandstone layers atop the Roan Plateau, the changes are noticeable.

Where once cattle trod through decadent sagebrush and the deepest hole was a smelly mud wallow, lush grasses and clear runs mark a stream that more than once has come back from the brink of disappearance.

Like all the seasonal streams that spiderweb across the top of the Roan Plateau, Trapper Creek depends greatly on winter snows to recharge its water source.

During the prolonged drought earlier this decade, even the most-optimistic stream rehabilitators wondered if, not when, these pocket-sized waterways would recover.

“The last time I was here, there wasn’t any water up that high,” said Chris Hunt of TU’s Sportsmen Conservation Project during a visit two years ago. “It really didn’t look good for the trout.”

Once the rains returned, however, so did the fish, which is the reason for this prolonged love story.

Trapper Creek and several nearby creeks hold Lilliputian populations of pure Colorado River cutthroat trout, fish that evolved here eons ago with unique genetic keys enabling them to survive periods of low water and warm water temperatures.

But even the genetically disposed can’t live where there isn’t water or the water is 80-degrees plus or a herd of cattle decides to congregate in the only water deeper than 6 inches.

That’s what has made this such a long-term project for TU and a handful of partners, including — with immense cooperation and support — the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Two cattle-proof exclosures were erected, knocked down, re-erected, knocked down and now finally are back in place. Stands of willows are taking hold after years of experimentation and countless hours of pushing willow cuttings into the streamside soil.

Log barriers and other man-made habitats have been put in, washed out, redesigned and re-installed and some of them still are working years after initial installation.

All these help keep water in a stream that could go dry without the shade from the willows and grasses, protection from intruding cattle and a flask-sized pond or two offering holding cover for a skittish trout.

Such projects never really end, and last month another handful of volunteers, some from the Grand Valley Anglers TU chapter, spent a day planting more willows along the upper exclosure of Trapper Creek.

“It primarily was TU folks along with the Division of Wildlife and BLM and some conservation-minded people from the Front Range who had never seen the Roan Plateau,” said David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited. “The lower exclosure is in really good shape but the upper exclosure got hammered pretty heavily by livestock. Last year, the BLM had a contractor go in and build new fences.”

The work crew planted 200, 5-gallon containers of willows, a plant significantly bigger with a better chance of survival than skinny cuttings.

“The survival will be higher but you have to dig a bigger hole,” Nickum said with a laugh.

A few fish were seen in the upper exclosure and fish up to 12 inches long, immense for a stream maybe twice that wide, were seen in the lower exclosure, Nickum said.

“That really gives us hope for re-establishing the riparian area,” he said.

Future plans include more in-stream structures “to reflect the science of stream habitat restoration today,” Nickum said. “It’s always a matter of learning from your successes and failures and going forward with that.”

Funding included a matching grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but most of the money derived from the state Health Department’s Supplemental Environmental Projects fund.

These monies come from fines paid by companies guilty of environmental damage.

“It makes sense that instead of just sending money to the state it goes to help improve the environment,” Nickum said.


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