For decades, it was accepted that Colorado’s native cutthroat trout could be distinguished by their location: Greenbacks were east of the Continental Divide; Colorado River and Rio Grande cutthroat were in their namesake watersheds; and yellowfin were extinct from Twin Lakes. In 2007, however, through the use of innovative genetic techniques, researchers reported that half of Colorado’s remnant Greenback populations were actually Colorado River cutthroat trout. This entanglement of data was a blow to cutthroat trout recovery efforts.
Adding to the perplexity, fish biologists discovered that fish genetically resembling Greenbacks were numerous on the West Slope. This led to the evaluation of extensive museum collections of trout specimens assembled and preserved up to 150 years ago by the explorers. The historic specimens revealed that each major river basin had a distinct lineage of cutthroat trout prior to settlement and the rampant fish stocking that began in the mid-1800s. Two cutthroat lineages are extinct–those from the San Juan (newly recognized & not yet named) and Arkansas (yellowfin) basins. However, four native cutthroat lineages persist: South Platte (greenback), Yampa-White (identified as Colorado River cutthroat), Rio Grande and Upper Colorado (previously unrecognized).
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) focuses conservation efforts in three areas: location, protection, and expansion. Our recovery efforts of native cutthroat have always used the “best” science available. Even without our current understanding of Colorado’s cutthroat trout, past efforts expanded native cutthroat populations across Colorado, preserving genetic diversity and resiliency of the species. Indeed, existing habitat was protected, rehabilitated, and restored; and streams were secured from invasion by exotic fish species and disease. Since these new revelations, CPW has located new populations enduring in remote streams, and has re-established populations in their rightful historic watersheds.
Local efforts focus on protecting the only remaining population of our native cutthroat in the Eagle River watershed in Abrams Creek. The native cutthroats persist alongside a historic, rudimentary water diversion that has dewatered the creek for more than 100 years, and negatively impacted the population below the diversion point. Fortunately, a pioneering water agreement between Trout Unlimited and Buckhorn Valley (the diverter), was reached in 2016 and agrees to protect the cutthroat by piping miles of the leaky ditch, thereby reducing the water needed to supply Buckhorn’s irrigation reservoir. Buckhorn will still receive their full allocation of water, but the savings from fixing the leaky system will stay in the creek. This will run as a covenant with their water right, protecting the stream in perpetuity while maintaining an important Pre-Compact Water Right. Additionally, local agencies plan to increase Abrams’ instream flow to prevent future water depletions. Due to the length and remote nature of the project, the costs are high – over $1 million. Fundraising efforts by project partners Trout Unlimited, Eagle Valley Trout Unlimited, Buckhorn Valley, CPW, and Eagle River Watershed Council are nearing the funding goal. Funds come from grants offered through the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado River Basin Roundtable, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Town of Gypsum as well as donations from Bureau of Land Management, Colorado’s Species Conservation Fund, and Alpine Bank. The remaining 13% of the project funding is still being sought.
As stewards of native cutthroat trout, CPW will continue to work with partners like TU and Eagle River Watershed Council and identify opportunities to protect and expand our unique remnant populations, ensuring the legacy of Colorado’s cutthroat long into the future. Information on Colorado’s cutthroat trout conservation efforts can be found on CPW’s website (www.cpw.state.co.us), and for Abrams Creek Cutthroat Project information or to make a donation go to www.coloradotu.org/abramscreek.
Kendall Bakich is an Aquatic Biologist for Colorado Parks & Wildlife. Bakich is a friend of the Eagle River Watershed Council which has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.
This article ran in the Vail Daily on October 22, 2017.