Fishing for Golden Tickets in the Colorado River

By Luke Sower.

Say goodbye to dinner and a show, and say hello to dinner and a check for $300.

On August 23, the National Park Service (NPS) announced a two-month long increase in the bonus payments for participation in its Brown Trout Incentivized Harvest program in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The increase comes as NPS hopes to increase public participation in managing the population of the non-native trout species. Anglers who take advantage of the program have an opportunity to earn sizable bounty payments while simultaneously contributing to the protection and preservation of endangered and threatened fish species in Arizona.

Background

In October 2020, NPS and the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) announced a joint initiative aimed at managing the population of brown trout within a 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River between Glen Canyon Dam and the Lees Ferry Campground. This section of the river in northern Arizona has long been a rainbow trout fishery and a popular locale for anglers. However, scientists have tracked a continued and concerning growth in the population of brown trout in the area since around 2014. While rainbow trout and brown trout are both fish-eaters non-native to the Colorado River, brown trout pose a more imminent danger to the endangered fish species native to the river. Compared to rainbow trout, brown trout are more aggressive and better adapted to live and hunt in the warmer, murkier water of the southern Colorado River. NPS estimates that brown trout are 17 times more likely to eat other fish in the Colorado than are rainbow trout. While the current brown trout population poses little direct threat to the river’s native species—including the flannelmouth, blue sucker, razorback sucker, and humpback chub—park officials worry that uncontrolled brown trout populations will spread downstream into areas more populated by native species.

These concerns over brown trout populations partially arose from NPS’s 2013 Comprehensive Fisheries Management Plan (CFMP), in which the agency presented its goals for fish management in the Colorado River within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park. As scientists and park officials began to note the danger posed by the growing brown trout population, this threat and its possible solutions were considered as NPS prepared its 2018 Expanded Non-Native Aquatic Species Management Plan. Under this plan, the agency presented programs aimed at addressing threats from non-native fish species in the same area covered by the CFMP. This 2018 plan derived from coordination between NPS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)—the federal agency chiefly responsible for administering and enforcing the Endangered Species Act.

The Brown Trout Bounty Program

This culminated in the Brown Trout Incentivized Harvest program. The program started in November 2020 and is managed by NPS in cooperation with AZGFD, USFWS, the Glen Canyon Conservancy, and numerous other federal and non-federal agencies. NPS plans to run the initiative for 3–4 years, after which it will assess the viability and effectiveness of the program before deciding on further steps.

During the incentivized harvest period, licensed Arizona anglers can receive payment for each brown trout over six inches that they pull from the Colorado River within the designated area. When the program started, the agency offered $25 per fish, but the rate has since increased to $33 per fish. In the ten month period between November 2020 and August 2021, NPS paid out over $17,000 as part of the program. Additionally, participants are not required to turn in the entire fish, but only the head and entrails. Because of this, if they wish, anglers can turn in their bounty and eat it too.

The $300 “Golden Tickets”

Last month, NPS announced an additional bonus to the Brown Trout Incentivized Harvest—essentially a Wonka-esque “golden ticket.” In addition to the baseline $33 per eligible fish, anglers will receive an additional $300 for every brown trout containing a Passive Integrated Transponder (“PIT”) tag during the months of September and October. PIT tags are small (~7mm) devices used by researchers to uniquely identify fish and track population sizes. NPS’s announcement of this new bonus did not include any explicit justification or reasoning for such a substantial increase in payment. However, it seems that ensuring PIT tags are secured by anglers and not inadvertently discarded will allow researchers to more accurately track and assess the effectiveness of the incentivized harvest program.

Conclusion

NPS and AZGFD have set up a program that pays anglers for their assistance in wildlife management and protection of endangered species. It is too early to tell how effective the incentivized harvest will be at reducing the brown trout population to the level that no longer poses a substantial threat to native species. But, if the program succeeds, it could serve as a national model to be emulated by federal and state wildlife management agencies across the country. The program could prove to be an example of the potential benefits that result when agencies approach the public with an attitude of cooperation.

"Arizona Angling" by CEBImagery.com is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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By Luke Sower

J.D. Candidate 2023

Luke Sower is a Staff Writer from Cedar Hill, TN. He is currently a 2L at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU, and he is primarily interested in environmental law. Prior to law school, he earned a B.A. in history from Union University. In his free time, Luke enjoys birdwatching, walking his dog, skateboarding, and playing Dungeons & Dragons.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the individual contributors to the ASLJ Blog and should not be construed as the opinions of the Arizona State Law Journal or the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.