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Weber River Partnership Protects World-Class Fishery

By Paul Thompson, Guest Blogger

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community

Blueheads & Bonnevilles from Western Native Trout Initiative on Vimeo.

The Weber River is a world-class stream, and anglers come from long distances to fish this river, so we definitely want to keep a close eye on it to ensure the fishery remains healthy. Managing for these fish in the Weber River is challenging, and a few years ago, we realized that we needed help from others within the Weber River watershed if we were going to be successful at maintaining healthy fish populations. In order to help spread our message regarding these fish, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR), along with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and many others, formed the Weber River Partnership.

Paul Thompson with a large brown trout
Large brown trout

The main fish targeted by anglers in the Weber River is brown trout, which were introduced more than 100 years ago. Brown trout frequently grow over 20 inches in length and some obtain sizes of more than 25 inches, or in a few cases, more than 30 inches! We do have to manage all the different kinds of fish in the river, however, and this can present many challenges.

The Weber River also contains a unique population of native Bonneville cutthroat trout that reside from Weber Canyon upstream past the town of Peterson. This cutthroat population has a fluvial life history strategy, which means they grow very large and travel long distances to find tributary streams to spawn. Once they lay eggs, the large adult fish move back into the Weber River, but the young cutthroat trout will remain in the tributary streams for a year or two until they decide to move downstream into the Weber River. Did I mention that these cutthroat trout grow large? Many can reaches sizes of 18-20 inches, which adds another trophy fish component for anglers. Development has impacted the Weber River, so road crossings, pipeline crossings, and irrigation diversions now impede fish movement and in some cases are keeping these cutthroat trout from being able to spawn in the tributary streams.

Paul Thompson with a Bluehead Sucker
Bluehead sucker

Another fish in the Weber River that the (UDWR) manages is the native bluehead sucker. This fish has a face that only their mothers could love – or a fish biologist! Even though I am an angler, and this isn’t a fish that we try and catch, the bluehead sucker may be my favorite fish in the entire river. Bluehead sucker primarily scrape algae off the bottom of the river, and they are considered an indicator species for the Weber River, so having healthy populations indicate that the Weber River is healthy. The bluehead sucker populations have declined in the Weber River because migration corridors have been blocked (like with the cutthroat trout) and important juvenile rearing habitats have been lost.

Over the past five years, nearly every stakeholder within the Weber River Watershed has joined this Partnership. One of the Partnership successes has been a watershed-wide symposium (called Confluence) that convenes each fall. Speakers from across the watershed provide the Partnership information and everyone within the Weber River is beginning to understand what others are doing in the watershed.

Fish now have a voice in the Weber River!

Fish ladder allows cutthroat to move upstream to spawn.
Fish ladder allows cutthroat to move upstream to spawn

And UDWR has been able to formalize relationships with cities, counties, water users, and landowners so fish are considered in river projects. For example, while we were removing a barrier that prevented fish from finding critical spawning habitat, we discovered that two more fish barriers had just come to our attention. These partnerships have allowed us to remove barriers to fish movement and open up miles of critical spawning habitat for the native fish in the Weber River.

These partnerships and projects will result in stronger and larger populations of Bonneville cutthroat trout and bluehead sucker. A common goal has emerged in the Weber River – let’s protect these fish so there is no need for a listing under the Endangered Species Act. This is a goal that everyone can live with – including the fish!

Want to learn more about the Weber River Partnership? Check out the Weber River Watershed Restoration Plan that our group developed to identify and assess challenges and threats to human and ecological values of the watershed and develop strategies to protect and enhance those values into the future.
Paul Thompson with a Large fluvial cutthroat trout

I am the Aquatics Manager for our Northern Region Office of UDWR. I am originally from Illinois, where I obtained my Bachelor of Science degree at Eastern Illinois University. I have always loved the West, so I made a point to attend graduate school at the University of Wyoming, where I earned my Master of Science degree in Fisheries. Since one of my main passions is fishing (especially fly fishing), I am in my dream job with the UDWR , where I have been working on fish for more than 21 years!

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