Bonneville cutthroat get help at Bear Lake

Fish Haven Project » For the first time in 60 years, spawning cutthroat are now swimming up Fish Haven Creek on the Idaho side of the lake.
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Bonneville cutthroat trout thrived in what would eventually become known as Bear Lake for eons before humans showed up. But it didn't take long, geologically speaking at least, for the native fish to feel the impacts of people.

American Indians took advantage of the spawning habits of the big cutthroat coming out the natural lake now straddling the Utah/Idaho border for thousands of years without too much of an impact on the trout.

But it was the arrival of settlers in the late 1800s that really put a kink in the spawning rituals of the Bonneville cutthroat.

Tributaries to the lake slowly became mazes of confusing irrigation canals where the trout became lost and sometimes ended up out of water on a field. Fish that did manage to spawn often found their way back to the lake cutoff and some fertilized eggs ended up being dried out by dewatering of the streams.

This spring, for the first time in more than a half-century, adult Bonneville cutthroat trout are swimming up Fish Haven Creek on the Idaho side of the lake. And, righting the ways of their predecessors, people made it happen.

Trout Unlimited (TU), a national non-profit with the mission to conserve, protect and restore coldwater fisheries in North America, took the lead on the Fish Haven Project.

"Ninety-eight percent of the fish that entered Fish Haven Creek to spawn never made it past a 280-foot long barrier low on the creek," said Kirk Dahle, a TU fisheries biologist out of Logan who oversaw the project. "The barrier was replaced in late 2009 and we are seeing spawning cutthroat between 18- and 30-inches and 6- to 8-pounds for the first time in around 60 years."

TU utilized local, state and federal partnerships to pay for the roughly $1 million project that also involved placing fish diversions on irrigation canals to prevent the fish from ending up on a field.

While TU and Idaho Fish and Game are pursuing a philosophy of natural recruitment of the native trout into the lake, there may not have been any fish to work if not for efforts by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).

Realizing that Bonneville cutthroat needed some help to survive in Bear Lake, the DWR started catching big spawners near the head of Swan Creek on the Utah side of the lake in the 1940s. A permanent facility was built in the late 1970s when state and federal officials created the Bear Lake Cutthroat Trout Enhancement Project

"They wanted to get the Bear Lake cutthroat strain in the hatchery system so could continue the sport fishery in Utah," said Scott Tolentino, a fisheries biologist with the DWR's Bear Lake Project. "Swan Creek is the shortest tributary coming into the lake and it is arguably the most important because no matter what the lake level, fish can get up here to spawn."

Tolentino said the trapping station on Swan Creek typically sees 500 to 700 spawning cutthroat each spring. Biologists strip enough eggs and milt from the big fish to reach their goal of releasing 270,000 cutthroat into the lake the next spring.

When the number of required eggs are collected, remaining spawning fish are allowed to spawn naturally in the river, augmenting the overall population. Utah officials also invested in a irrigation diversion on Swan Creek

"Without the egg-taking at Swan Creek we may not have a cutthroat fishery in Bear Lake," Tolentino said. "What is happening at Fish Haven Creek is great. We simply don't have the natural reproduction in the system at this time, but maybe sometime down the road we might."

Bonneville cutthroat get help at Bear Lake