MOUNTAIN GREEN — Section by section, the strange metal blocks were placed together in a scrunched, 400-foot-long culvert underneath I-84 at the Mountain Green Exit in Weber Canyon.
There are 43 separate blocks that will be installed in this drain at Strawberry Creek, allowing prized cutthroat trout to reach critical spawning habitat they have been deprived of for decades.
The ladder, or fish passage, will connect Strawberry River to the downstream Weber River.
Clint Burnson, an aquatic habitat restoration biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the fish have been tagged over the years to determine if they could navigate the fast-moving waters of the culvert to get to Strawberry Creek and spawn.
“None of them could physically pass through,” he said.
This three-day project that kicked off Thursday will change that and is the result of a collaborative effort that involves the division, Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and multiple other partners.
The $100,000 project was funded in part by anglers themselves through participation in the Utah Cutthroat Slam, a competition that began this year that challenges participants to catch four native trout in Utah.
An entry fee of $20 gets successful participants a certificate, a medallion, a chance to fish unfamiliar waters and of course, bragging rights.
Paul Burnett, Utah’s water and habitat director for Trout Unlimited, said $19 of that entry fee goes toward fish conservation and restoration projects throughout the state.
This particular project was six years in the making and required the cooperation of the Utah Department of Transportation and fish surveys to ensure it would be money well-spent.
Burnett said both his organization and the division are just beginning to grapple with the extent of fish barriers that exist throughout the state and are targeting areas where installation of a fish passage would do the most good.
“Every place is different and has its own challenges,” he said.
In the Weber River Basin alone, groups have identified 396 sites similar to the I-84 culvert where fish passage is constrained.
Installation of this ladder, which is longer than a football field, was identified as a top priority.
“This one is very unique,” Burnett said.
When I-84 was completed in the 1950s and the culvert was put into allow Strawberry Creek to continue its flow into the Weber River, Brunson said authorities likely had no idea they were interfering with the trout’s spawning habitat and damaging their ecosystem.
“It’s not like people had malicious intent,” he said. “I just don’t’ think they had the understanding that we do today.”
He said many people mistakenly believe that a fish just hangs out in the water, staying in one general area.
“Fish move a lot, “ he said, “if they can.”
While trout can cover 20 miles in a typical year, some trout in the Bear River have traveled well over 90 miles.
“They will go where the conditions are great.”
By restoring that connection between Strawberry Creek and the Weber River, native fish populations will be bolstered in the long run, he added.
Trout Unlimited is working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, forging an agreement that identifies 12 fish passage projects to be completed over a 5-year-period in the Weber Basin area.
Mark Fuller, a biologist with the federal agency, said Congress makes federal funds available to cover some of the costs, with a selection process that is carried out at the regional level.
“A significant portion of that funding is coming here, to this area,” he said.
Trout Unlimited has worked with the division, water conservancy districts and multiple partners on other habitat improvement projects throughout the state.
This particular project is expected to yield results next spring, as fish are finally able to reach their spawning destination.
“This is a great opportunity for us to get some fish moving again,” Burnson said, smiling. “Next year, we will watch fish come out of the other side of that culvert.”