Colorado Parks and Wildlife has started work on a construction project to install a long-sought fish screen in Rifle Creek.
Fed by Rifle Gap Reservoir, the creek is a tributary to the Colorado River and is northeast of the city of Rifle.
Agencies involved in the project include Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Silt Water Conservancy District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. A majority of the funding for the project came from sportsmen's dollars, generated from the sale of fishing and hunting licenses.
Once it is functioning, the screen will prevent non-native fish that have escaped from Rifle Gap and into Rifle Creek from reaching the Colorado River, where they can be harmful to native fish populations.
Officials say it will be complete and operational by spring of 2013.
Lori Martin, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the northwest region, called it a "win-win project all the way around."
"We are protecting native fish populations downstream, while simultaneously having the opportunity to improve a combination, cool- and warm-water fishery within Rifle Gap," she said. "We are answering the call of our anglers who are seeking more warm water fishing opportunities, but also keeping in mind the concerns of our partners within the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program."
That program is a multi-state, multi-agency effort headed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a goal to recover four endangered fish found only in the Upper Colorado River system: The Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail chub, and humpback chub.
Brent Uilenberg of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation agreed the project would help both sport fishing and endangered fish downstream. Uilenberg said the project will not affect reservoir operations or water supplies.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the 100-year floodplain of the Colorado River downstream from the bridge over Interstate 70 at exit 90, is critical habitat for the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.
Current recovery efforts include removing non-native predators from sections of the upper Colorado River system, and preventing fish from escaping lakes and reservoirs where non-natives are thriving, often with the use of fish screens.
The existing cool- and warm-water fishery of smallmouth bass and walleye in Rifle Gap has been self-sustaining since the 1960s, when the former Colorado Division of Wildlife stocked both species, before the recovery program. Currently, trout are the only fish that can be legally stocked into Rifle Gap.
After the fish screen is in place, Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers will begin drafting a new lake management plan for Rifle Gap before submitting it to the Fish and Wildlife and other recovery program agencies for final approval.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife gathered initial input for fishery management within Rifle Gap Reservoir, including the installation of the fish screen, during a public meeting in August 2010. The agency plans more meetings in the coming months to provide the public with a chance for input as the agency drafts the final lake management plan.
Warm-water fishing has become increasingly popular in western Colorado. However, opportunities are currently limited due to concerns with the threat that some non-native fish species can pose to native fishes.
Despite those concerns, state wildlife officials continue to look for effective ways, including the installation and maintenance of approved fish screens, to satisfy angler's requests for additional warm water fishing without compromising native fish recovery efforts.
"Cold-water fisheries in western Colorado are famous world-wide," said Sherman Hebein, senior aquatic biologist in the northwest region. "But we also have a core of dedicated anglers that appreciate warm water alternatives, and we are working hard to provide them as much opportunity as we are able, given some of the obstacles and limitations we must take into consideration."