All over the country, Trout Unlimited chapters and their volunteers are hard at work making the world a better place for trout and the anglers that pursue them. Through focused conservation efforts based in science, and a shared desire to improve local environments, we are seeing new boots in the water every day – taking on conservation and restoration projects with our favorite fish in mind.

Unfortunately, these efforts oftentimes go under the radar, and people rarely even understand who they have to thank for their pristine trout-waters, which may not exist without the work of these hard-working collectives. This is why a few months back, we had the privilege of teaming up with Tincup Whiskey to get an insider look at a local effort of one of Colorado TU’s ongoing endeavors: The First Creek Project.

first creek birds eye

The First Creek Project is one going on in California Park, Routt County Colorado, and is focused on two main objectives. i. to reconnect the stream with its floodplain and thereby improve water quality and wetland habitats, and ii) to restore a population of native Colorado River Cutthroat Trout. In order to get the full rundown, we met up with Northwest Colorado TU Director, and Fisheries and Restorations Biologist, Brian Hodge, who walked us through the project, and what was happening on and off the ground.

brian on the auger

Project Overview:

(via: Brian Hodges)

First Creek is located within the California Park Special Interest Area, which is home to a suite of native fishes and amphibians, including the Colorado River Cutthroat Trout. Project partners are trying to maintain the diversity of the Park, restore conditions where they’ve been degraded, and ultimately increase the abundance and distribution of native species

pulling trees

Today, Colorado River Cutthroat Trout occupy only 10-15% of their historical range and 70-75% of CRCT populations occupy no more than about six miles of stream. By restoring First Creek and the other headwaters of Elkhead Creek, the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife have an opportunity to reconnect up to 40 miles of Cutthroat Trout habitat, which would make this one of the most robust and resilient populations in the entire State.

colorado cutty
What’s at stake: this small fry and its future as one of the last remaining native trout species in Colorado.

The degraded condition of First Creek was likely owing to a number of factors and land uses over a course of decades or more.  Perhaps the single greatest influence was the upstream migration of a headcut.  In simple terms, a headcut is a sudden drop in elevation that can “migrate” upstream.  The effect of a headcut is to lower channel bed elevation relative to the adjacent landscape. When a stream is disconnected from its floodplain—that is, when it sits in a trench below the landscape—we typically see excess streambank erosion and a lack of riparian vegetation.  In turn, we have more fine sediment clogging riffles and less shade or overhead cover to insulate the stream from the sun, neither of which is good for Cutthroat Trout, which rely on clean gravel for spawning beds and food, and which require cold water to survive.

big auger

The simple way of executing this: Project partners [will] reconnect the stream with its floodplain and plant thousands of willows with the intent of giving First Creek a jump-start back to its historical, healthy condition.

carrying trees

Where it Started:

In 2009 or 2010, the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife started chipping away at a multi-year, multi-million dollar restoration vision for upper Elkhead Creek and its tributaries (Armstrong, Circle, and First creeks).  In short, the plan was to start small and to progressively tackle bigger and bigger projects.  In 2009-2010 we replaced three culverts to improve passage for native fish and amphibians.  From 2012 to 2015 we restored three miles of Armstrong Creek, and in 2018 we reintroduced Colorado River Cutthroat Trout to Circle Creek.  Next on the plan was to restore First Creek.

plans on paper

The First Creek project took about five years from start to finish (including a one-year COVID-related delay).  Project partners started in 2016 by inviting input and ideas from a range of ecologists, hydrologists, and restoration specialists.  The restoration plan took shape over the course of the next year or two, and the final design was complete by the end of 2019.  The majority of funds came from grants from the Colorado Department of Health and Environmental Services, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Additional funds were provided by Tincup Whiskey, Trout Unlimited, and the Forest Service.

marking the spot

Project implementation entailed two phases of work: four weeks of dirt work with heavy equipment and two weeks of planting with a crew of dedicated staff and volunteers.  Restoration actions focused on a combination of raising the channel bed elevation and lowering the existing floodplain in order to reconnect the stream and floodplain during high flow events.  In addition, large wood was buried on the outside of meanders to stabilize streambanks and provide a quality habitat for trout.  Where improving the existing channel was not feasible we constructed 800 feet of new channel. Finally, over 700 pounds of native seed and 3,400 willows were planted to quickly establish high-quality riparian areas.

planting willows

Lead Project Coordinators: 

(A project like this takes an army. Here are only a few of the many TU and Forest Service Volunteers who helped make this possible)

Project Manager: Rick Henderson, Fish Biologist, U.S. Forest Service.  Rick managed the First Creek project through the planning, fundraising, implementation, and monitoring phases.

forests ervice truck

Project Co-Manager: Liz Schnackenberg, Hydrologist, U.S. Forest Service. Liz provided hydrologic expertise during all phases of the project.

Project Co-Manager: Brian Hodge, Fisheries and Restoration Biologist, Trout Unlimited.  Brian assisted with project development and implementation and will assist with post-project effectiveness monitoring.

brian Hodges

Additional Mention: Marti Aitken, Botanist, U.S. Forest Service.  Marti planned and coordinated the revegetation (seeding and riparian planting) phase of the First Creek project.

marti and wills

Final Thoughts:

“The First Creek project couldn’t have happened without support from a number of organizations, including Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flylords, and Tincup Whiskey.”

first creek

“The First Creek project improved water quality, approximately three miles of Colorado River Cutthroat Trout habitat, and more than eight acres of riparian and wetland habitats.”

After a long day in the field, there’s nothing better than poruing up a splash of Tincup whiskey.

To learn more about getting involved with efforts such as the First Creek Project, and other TU initiatives, check out their website HERE, or read about how to get involved HERE. Thank you again to Trout Unlimited, the US Forest Service, and Tincup Whiskey for helping make this project coverage possible.

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