Change of pace: Gunnison Gorge flash flood leaves mark on scenery wildlife

As more reports filter in about the Aug. 19 flash flood through the Gunnison Gorge, it’s evident the effects will be felt for the next several years.

Edd Franz, outdoor recreation planner for the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, said Thursday that among the many changes wrought by the flood, the change in Boulder Garden Rapid might be the most noticeable.

Speaking at the late-summer Aspinall Unit Operations meeting at the Elk Creek Visitors Center near Blue Mesa Reservoir, Franz said the rapid, historically one of the more difficult of the rapids in what’s known as the “Miracle Mile” of the Gunnison River, is “now pretty tame.”

“There now is a new drop right below Boulder Garden but the rapid itself is changed,” he said. “It’s probably going to stay that way unless we have an above-normal snow year.”

Also, Franz said the flood debris buried campsites in Ute Park and elsewhere and “we’ll be making some changes to the campsites down there.”

The Gunnison Gorge NCA website (http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/nca/ggnca.html) has a link to a flash flood site that reviews the damage and shows some fascinating photos of the after-flood conditions.

Among the observations is that while damage occurred at Bobcat and Duncan trails, the biggest impact began at Ute Park.

“A significant amount of water ran through both the east and west sides of Ute Park,” the website reports.

Also, Caddis Camp, a small site located at a bend of the river downstream of Ute Park, “received heavy damage and is not recommended for camping,” the website says. “Large amounts of mud, rocks and debris has (sic) made Caddis an unfriendly site that will require a significant amount of work to make camping feasible.”

Anyone familiar with the river camps will be surprised at the damage.

“We have our work ahead of us,” Franz said.

Several fishing outfitters said August is a slow time of the year for guide trips through the Gorge, which probably saved a few lives.

Reports from boaters going down the river since the flood say damage below the Smith Fork is noticeable but not as dramatic as the Ute Park section.

Daily Sentinel reader Erin Williams floated the river Wednesday from Pleasure Park to Austin and reported seeing a lot of silt and debris along the river.

“Silt a couple of inches thick on all the banks (and) lots of old wood debris on the sand bars,” Williams said in an e-mail Thursday.

The flood also caused some changes in fisheries research in the Gunnison.

Colorado Division of Wildlife fisheries biologist Dan Kowalski said his plans this fall had called for some special fry survival projects, including a controlled experiment with 20,000 rainbow trout fry stocked this summer in the Ute Park section of river.

In prior years, Kowalski has planted 5-inch rainbows but found those fish highly susceptible to predation by the river’s overwhelming population of brown trout.

“In areas of high brown trout density, the survival of the 5-inch stocked Hofer trout is pretty low due to competition from and predation by brown trout,” Kowalski said. “Those that did survive have done well and we’ve seen indications of natural reproduction by those fish.”

Ute Park is especially dense with brown trout, and Kowalski was hoping to monitor rainbow fry survival in that environment.

By stocking large numbers of tiny fish, Kowalski was hoping to get them out into the wild while they still had a natural feeding instinct.

Also, it’s thought the small fish would develop a predator avoidance behavior as they grew.

Fish raised in hatcheries become “behaviorally domesticated” and more susceptible to predation, Kowalski said.

Kowalski said an additional 97,000 fry were stocked in August from above the Chukar Trail to the Bobcat Trail as part of the Division’s research into using the Hofer strain of rainbow trout, which are resistant to whirling disease, to rebuild rainbow populations in the Gunnison.

The flood has derailed Kowalski’s earlier plans to monitor predation survival.

“With our concern of potential fish kill on other parts of the river we’ll do our traditional October four-day survey in the Gunnison Gorge,” Kowalski.

You can bet that among the goals of the survey, tentatively planned for Oct. 4-7, will be checking to see if any of the newly stocked fry survived the deluge.

As he noted last week, “By far, this was the worst possible time (the flood) could have come for the young of the year trout fry.”


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