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Mountain West to receive millions from Interior Department to reopen native fish habitats

This is an image of a culvert spilling water into a creek in a forested area. The ground, leaves, and water are shades of brown.
Jim White
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
In southwest Colorado, more than $700,000 will be used to replace this culvert on Cherry Creek with a bottomless structure that allows fish to pass.

The Interior Department is spending another $70 million to reopen habitat for native fish in many parts of the U.S., including the Mountain West.

The money, which comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will be used to remove or modify outdated dams, culverts and other barriers breaking up the nation’s rivers and streams.

Of the federal government’s latest investment in fish passage, about $3.7 million is flowing to projects in the Mountain West.

In southwestern Colorado, more than $700,000 will be used to replace a culvert blocking roundtail chub, bluehead sucker, and flannelmouth sucker from moving up Cherry Creek in the La Plata River watershed.

In northern Idaho, more than $400,000 will be used to replace a culvert blocking the migration of Snake River Basin steelhead and bull trout on the South Fork of Running Creek.

In northern New Mexico, more than $2.5 million is going toward several projects, including barrier removals on the Rio Chama watershed, Upper San Juan River watershed, and Rio Costilla watershed. The latter project is the final step in a 25-year effort to reconnect 120 miles of stream for Rio Grande cutthroat trout, sucker, chub and other species.

“To make sure these fish can move throughout this metapopulation freely is critical at this point in time when the climate and things are changing so fast,” said Kevin Terry, Southwest program director at Trout Unlimited, which is leading the Rio Costilla project. “We really need resiliency, and we really need these organisms to be able to find refuge habitat.”

Terry said climate change can shrink snowpacks, reducing the amount of cool water replenishing rivers and streams. As a result, water temperatures rise, which can force fish to search for cooler habitats.

The funding is part of the Biden administration’s $200 million commitment to restore native fish habitat and spawning grounds.

The projects receiving funds will not only support native fish, they’ll also help local communities, said Emily Olson, vice president for the Rocky Mountain region at Trout Unlimited.

“We see them as improving climate resilience, increasing recreational opportunities, we know they strengthen local economies,” Olson said. “And, of course, they improve fish passage.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.

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