OUT Sun Column July 12, 2009

DOW makes ready plans to protect salmon

At some point later this summer, the Colorado Division of Wildlife once again will jump feet first into the fire.

Perhaps not literally, although some DOW detractors may prefer that alternative, but certainly figuratively. The heat will begin in earnest when the agency officially reveals a plan to protect kokanee salmon in Blue Mesa Reservoir by killing lake trout, the main predator of Blue Mesa’s salmon.

While the final plans haven’t been revealed, enough preliminary information is available so that the agency finds itself edging toward another controversy over a plan for managing the state’s wildlife resource.

Such controversies aren’t new. Anytime the DOW revamps management plans or policies, there’s sure to be an outcry from some interest group convinced it’s ox is being gored unfairly.

Limited-license elk units, cutbacks in deer licenses, game damage payments, enforcing catch-and-release, fly and artificial lure-only regulations, the list goes on.

Most times the controversies heal themselves — time is a wonderful balm, after all — but occasionally the result is lawsuits and ballot initiatives, a poor compromise that often leaves behind science-based management in favor of marketing and emotions.

It’s actually a good thing to have controversy, as long as there remains some respect and openness on both sides.

That Colorado citizens take a personal and abiding interest in the state’s wildlife resource is a marvelous thing. Equally marvelous is the DOW’s stance that successfully managing said wildlife means aiming at a moving target, requiring revisionist thinking in an effort to do what is best for the greater good, particularly when the greater good means animals with fins or feathers or four legs.

The division’s plan for eliminating some of the lake trout in Blue Mesa, at the risk of over-simplification, is based on what’s seen as an alarming drop in kokanee salmon numbers.

Despite increasing the annual stocking rate over the past 15 years from 1.5 million to around 2.9 million kokanee fry, the DOW has seen the kokanee catch decline by 80 percent, from approximately 170,000 in 1993 to about 30,000 last year. The rainbow trout catch also decreased, the DOW reported. 

Both declines are being blamed primarily on predation by lake trout.

Blue Mesa kokanee are important not only for the economics (kokanee anglers contribute an estimated $5 million each year to Gunnison County) but also because Blue Mesa provides kokanee eggs for other waters in the state.

Lake trout limits at Blue Mesa are a generous eight fish but too few anglers keep their limit, said DOW aquatics biologist Dan Brauch of Gunnison.

“We’ve been dealing with these concerns for a long time and we’d really like to see our anglers help us out by harvesting the small to medium-sized lake trout,” Brauch said.

“(But) the return rate to the water is still very high because) lake trout anglers tend to practice catch and release for the most part.”

The plan as explained is to use gill nets to trap small to medium-sized lake trout during the spring spawn, using a mesh size that would target smaller lakers.

“They are the most numerous and what we want to do is remove a portion of the population that preys on kokanees,” Brauch said. “The plan is to release larger lake trout that are caught.”

Hard-core lake trout anglers aren’t convinced the plan will work.

“But are they just going to kill the small ones?” questioned longtime laker specialist Harry Colborn of Rifle in an e-mail. “I doubt it. Anything that goes in those nets is going to die.

How ludicrous to keep blaming the lake trout.”

Colborn and his wife, Colleen, have been chasing Blue Mesa lakers for 20 years or more and have kept close record of their success and failures. He maintains the laker has population has declined as laker-wise anglers take advantage of the eight-fish limit.

That’s one reason he’s fishing more at Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir, where lakers apparently are more numerous.

Gunnison-based fishing guide Travis Snyder also questions the DOW’s plan, saying a better way to protect the reservoir’s kokanee salmon is to reduce the 10-fish per day limit.

“You hear of guys catching their 10 fish a day, and if there’s four or five guys on a boat, that’s 40 or 50 salmon,” he said. “If they changed that, there would be more salmon for everyone.”

Snyder also would like to see a slot limit on lake trout, say one fish between 30 or 32 inches, and increasing the limit on smaller lakers.

Colborn, too, says overfishing is hurting the kokanee more than predation by lake trout.

“At Flaming Gorge, the limit is three (salmon) per day,” he wrote. He also noted anglers have become more adept at catching kokanee in the fall when they school up preparing for the spawn.

There’s more, of course, from both sides. It’s going to be a long, hot summer.


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