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A Colorado River cutthroat trout is released into the Strawberry River in Duchesne County on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. About 5,500 Colorado River cutthroat trout were released into the river by Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologists. The Dollar Ridge Fire burned more than 68,000 acres in 2018 and severely damaged the Strawberry River fishery. The Strawberry River had been a popular brown trout fishery, but virtually all the fish were killed by flash floods, ash flows and pH changes in the aftermath of the fire.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

A fishery was severely damaged by a fire that burned more than 68,000 acres. Here’s how biologists are working to revitalize the affected river

SHARE A fishery was severely damaged by a fire that burned more than 68,000 acres. Here’s how biologists are working to revitalize the affected river
SHARE A fishery was severely damaged by a fire that burned more than 68,000 acres. Here’s how biologists are working to revitalize the affected river

FRUITLAND, Duchesne County — Thousands of new trout have taken up residence in a stretch of the Strawberry River that was deeply affected by the 2018 Dollar Ridge Fire.

The fire, which burned more than 68,000 acres, severely damaged the Strawberry River fishery.

“We’ve had a lot of sediment and ash, and just all kinds of debris come in, and it basically suffocates the fish,” said Gary Birchell, an assistant aquatic manager with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

On Thursday the division restocked a section of the river that had been “dead” for about a year with about 5,500 Colorado River cutthroat trout, a move Birchell hopes will move along the process of bringing the river back to life. 

“It’s kind of hard, because it was a special area,” Birchell said, adding it was once popular for fishing. Now, many of those spots are washed out from floods that came after the fire.

Before the fire, Birchell said the waters had record numbers of fish, mostly brown trout. But recently, division biologists went electrofishing and found nothing.

“Cutthroat used to be a fairly big component of the fisheries in the Strawberry River, particularly up by the dam,” Birchell said. 

The biologists are hoping this is the right time to reintroduce the fish. Indications are good so far as vegetation growing back, and there are some signs of mayfly larvae in the waters.

“It’s really telling us it’s stable enough to at least have some fish food,” said Brian Engelbert, regional fisheries biologist with the division. 

When restocking the river, the division’s team makes drops in multiple spots, eventually loading smaller fry — fish about 2 inches in length — into buckets, to drop in more rough terrain.

Although the fire took its toll, not everything was lost. 

“There’s about, I don’t know, a mile and a half or so where the fire didn’t really impact it too much, and the fish population up there is still pretty good,” Birchell said. 

The hope is that Thursday’s efforts will help speed up the restoration process, though the burned trees and the washed out landscape show it’s still a long way from what used to be normal.

“We need the uplands to revegetate and heal,” Birchell said.