It was over a decade ago that Eric Gardunio, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks & Wildlife, beheld a holy grail. He still remembers the day.
Gardunio had been working with a group of colleagues at the so-called Hartland Diversion in Delta along the Gunnison River, “evaluating whether fish could make it from the bottom to the top” of a structure called a fish ladder, which would help them circumvent the dam. Just as highway overpasses help to connect wildlife across migratory corridors, the Hartland Dam’s redesign — which netted the design team an award for excellence from the American Council of Engineering — was intended to help connect the habitats of threatened native fish that scientists knew existed both above and below the dam. Now Gardunio’s team had landed not only the one of the rarest denizens of the Colorado River Basin, but the most endangered fish in all of North America: the bonytail chub.
Its name suggests something ugly, or at the very least, awkward — an ungainly combination of chunky and scrawny. In fact, Gila elegans — named for the elegant way it swims — “is aptly titled,” Gardunio recalled. “Part of its tail is almost pencil-thin. So thin, you’d think it would snap off when it swims.” Low-slung, glossy and sleek, bonytails’ streamlined bodies “look like sportscars,” he said. They’ve evolved in the Colorado River Basin over millions of years. They are found no place else on Earth. They can live to be 50 years— yes, half a century — old.
The bonytail “resembles another species called the roundtail chub. I’d been afraid that if I ever did” come across a bonytail in real life, “I might not be able to identify it,” Gardunio said. Yet he could, and right away.
“It was incredible to see something so rare,” he said. “Out of the hundreds of thousands of fish I’ve seen, this was my favorite.”
The bonytail is one of four Upper Colorado River Basin fish that has been given federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Two others, the razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow, are thought to have evolved 3 million years ago, “when wooly mammoths and the American mastodon walked the Earth,” according to the website coloradoriverrecovery.org. The protection of these species and another fish, the humpback chub, is the focus of a unique consortium of states (Colorado, Utah and Wyoming), energy companies, water users and environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy and Western Resource Advocates.
“It’s a small set of fish that have developed in a highly variable, hard-to-live place. They’ve evolved their life history to snowmelt and muddy river water,” said Kevin McAbee, the nonnative fish coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
For that matter, so have the so-called “three species” — primeval-looking, strangely named “flannelmouth” suckers, “bluehead” suckers, and the jolly-sounding roundtail chub. The tenacious trio has earned the state designation of being species in “greatest need” of conservation. “It’s hard to do them justice,” said CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski, who has tried, by writing about these fish for Colorado Outdoors (he dubbed them “The Rodney Dangerfields of Colorado fish: They don’t get no respect”).
“They’re built like torpedoes — thick, muscular and suited to staying on the river-bottom, fighting tough waters,” Lewandowski said. “They’re real survivors, and exist nowhere else on the planet.”
Which brings us to the popular (and delicious) game fish known as the smallmouth bass, anything but an endangered species.
Indeed, there are too many of them, at least in Ridgway. And so they are the lure in a fishing tournament going on there until the end of the month.
Scientists aren’t sure exactly when, but sometime over the last decade-and-a-half, the bass were illegally introduced to the Ridgway Reservoir (their native waters are the middle and upper Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes).
The bass is an aggressive predator. The worry is that these fish will escape and move into the cooler waters of the Gunnison River, where they can survive, and where federally protected species and other threatened, but not officially endangered, native species reside.
The endangered species are slow-growers. The bass are voracious. “Once they’re established somewhere, it’s really hard to get rid of them. They can figure out how to live,” as Gardunio put it. “They can eat something as big as they are. Their mouth is the limiting factor: If they can get it in their mouth, they’ll try to eat it. They eat crawdads. They eat bugs. They eat fish.” (On Sunday, this reporter watched an angler gut a smallmouth bass at Ridgway State Park; the fish had ingested an entire crawdad almost a third of its length.)
Some people mistake wildlife officials’ efforts to conserve native fish with a desire to preserve trout for anglers. However, “The habitats of trout and native fish generally don’t overlap,” CPW’s Lewandowski pointed out. “So trout, which do eat other fish, are not a serious threat to native fish. But smallmouth bass and northern pike can survive in the same habitat as the natives. Therefore, they’re a threat.”
The concern about smallmouth bass is acute at Ridgway because of the reservoir’s proximity to certain neighboring waters.
“The section of the Gunnison River, from the confluence with the Colorado River to the confluence with the Uncompahgre, is critical habitat for native fish,” Lewandowski explained. “Our surveys show there’s no bass in that section ... keeping them out of that critical habitat is key.”
To help limit the number of voracious (and tenacious) escapees, wildlife officials are partnering with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Tri-County Water Concervancy to “install a barrier around the stand-pipe of the dam. We’re hoping to get it in this winter,” Gardunio said.
In addition, he’s organized Ridgway Reservoir’s Smallmouth Bass Fishing Tournament.
Now in its fifth year, the tournament is on until July 27. Contestants stand to win big money by catching just one fish, and it needn’t be a whopper.
A prize of $5,000 will be awarded for the most fish caught, second most ($1,500) and third most ($500). There are also $500 awards (based on length) for largest and smallest fish.
Then there are the raffle prizes: the grand prize is $2,500, and there are six “second-tier” prizes of $250 a piece. Anglers receive a raffle ticket for every smallmouth bass (no matter how small) they catch.
Kids are invited to enter, too: “A package of fishing lures will be given to any angler under 12 years of age who turns in a smallmouth bass.”
As you might expect, there is no limit on the number of smallmouth bass you can catch. All bass must be checked in at the Fish Checking Station (near the boat ramp), open from 1-5 p.m. Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Last weekend, the tournament drew an inspired assortment of anglers who caught a total of more than 300 smallmouth bass Saturday alone. Angler Number 18 was Will Stauffer of Fruita, who has been sharpening his bass-catching skills for 24 months. On Saturday, they finally paid off. In past years, “I caught nothing,” he said. “This year, I’ve really been researching what types of bait they like, and different types of jigs. I’m just workin’ at it. It’s all coming together.”
Stauffer landed 23 smallmouth bass Saturday, and 23 raffle tickets.
Angler Number 29 — Kyle Hall of Montrose — “caught these while I was paddle-boarding,” he announced as he presented his catch to CPW employees Austin Kiber and Jordan Anderson at the Fish Checking Station.
There are other, equally tasty fish to be gotten in the course of seeking smallmouths, of course. “How many times did they stock the reservoir?” Lane Williams of Bailey wondered. “We’ve caught about 30 rainbow trout in the last day we were here.”
Nevertheless, Williams and his sons announced their intention to “barbecue” the good-sized smallmouth bass they’d landed “over an open flame.”
The intent is to get anglers involved, and for the tournament to make a dent in the reservoir’s smallmouth bass population, which, in turn, will prevent them from threatening the endangered species.
“These are the fish that supported the Native Americans, the early settlers and can only be found in this part of the country,” McAbee said. Dams and river diversions, and introductions of nonnative species for sport fishermen, have taken a toll on the Upper Colorado River’s native fishes. “State and federal agencies put walleye and northern pike,” in lakes, McAbee said. “They don’t do that any longer. Fifteen years ago, Ridgway had no smallmouth bass. Someone brought them here. We still have people moving walleye and northern pike into new locations. The movement of fish is a problem, because state and federal agencies have a scientific understanding of where these species should and shouldn’t be. When members of the public take this into their own hands, it can affect the ecosystem.
“More than 50 species of nonnative fish have been introduced by humans to the Upper Colorado River Basin, which prey on our native fish and compete for resources.”
By contrast, there are just 13 species native to the Colorado River upstream of Lake Powell.
“The three species we’re focusing on now — the northern pike, the walleye, and the smallmouth bass — are important sport fish that anglers want to catch,” McAbee said. “They were brought here to lakes and reservoirs. They escaped and got downstream, they went upstream; they got into the river and started establishing themselves. All three are very voracious predators; all three are very good at reproducing. And so we have a situation where they’re preying on our native fish over the course of their lives.”
Biologists are trying to assist native fish in a number of ways, including breeding and restocking them in the river and removing nonnatives, sometimes through fishing tournaments (such as the Elkhead Reservoir Fishing Classic, a northern pike and smallmouth bass tournament held in June).
“A lot of our work goes into surveys and spawning of these fish. We’ve placed small radio trips in some fish, and, basically, antenna arrays in some rivers and creeks, so when a chipped fish passes over the antenna, the contact is recorded and aquatic staff is keeping track of their travels. We collect the spawn of blueheads and roundtails and propagate and stock those. We haven’t found the secret sauce for flannelmouth yet,” Lewandowski said.
The ancient survivors hang on. “The four endangered fish are slower-growing, and have to survive multiple years of not being eaten by a smallmouth bass or a walleye,” McAbee said.
If they disappeared, it would be a blow “to the functioning of the ecosystem, and our cultural heritage.”
The Colorado pikeminnow, for example, “is the largest ‘minnow’ in America. Historically, it grew up to six feet in length. It swims hundreds of miles, and hunts in water so dark you can’t see anything, with no visual cues. The whitewater chub hangs out in narrow canyons with whitewater and deep holes and big rocks, where people want to go whitewater rafting. The razorback sucker also travels hundreds of miles. It lays eggs before the spring snowmelt, and the larvae ride the huge snowmelt ‘peak’ in the river to the floodplain. You think about how tiny and fragile they are. They not only don’t die, they use the river’s power. It’s amazing that they thrive in the Colorado, a river that’s both cold and fast, and slow and hot. It’s a very difficult environment to survive in,” McAbee summed up. “Yet through different means, these species have perfected it.”
Sunday in Ridgway, Eric Gardunio pronounced himself pleased with the tournament’s results so far. He estimated that as a result of the contest, the smallmouth bass population has fallen about 40 percent over the past few years at the reservoir. Still, protecting native species “is big, and complex, and we have to work on a lot of different fronts,” he said. On the Upper Colorado, meanwhile, the consortium has “accomplished countless recovery acts for native species,” McAbee said. “The biggest is that as a result of our efforts, the Fish & Wildlife Service has issued a five-year review of the chub and the sucker, two of our four Endangered species, recommending that they be downlisted to Threatened. We can’t take them off the list, because we still haven’t seen them go from laying eggs to becoming adults.”
The effort to bring these species back from the brink has taken decades and hundreds of millions of dollars. There is still much to learn: “Unfortunately, because the Colorado River is such a harsh environment, these fish weren’t studied nearly as much as other fish across the country before we started modifying the ecosystem with canals and large dams,” McAbee said. “We know a lot scientifically about them, but there’s also a lot we don’t know.”
“They were just doing their thing, and they were really good at it until we showed up,” Gardunio said.
The natives survived for millions of years. The race remains on to recover them.