Hun­dreds of tiny trout hope­fully feel at home

Colorado Parks and Wildlife bi­ol­o­gists re­stock Her­man Gulch with green­back cut­throats

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Bruce Fin­ley

HER­MAN GULCH» If Colorado’s im­per­iled state fish can still sur­vive any­where in its na­tive South Platte River Basin, govern­ment wildlife bi­ol­o­gists say, it would be here: iso­lated tun­dra head­wa­ters 4 miles above traf­fic rac­ing to­ward Eisen­hower Tun­nel on In­ter­state 70.

The bi­ol­o­gists have purged this gulch of all other fish com­peti­tors.

But the first pure green­back cut­throat trout dropped into chilly streams Mon­day morn­ing sim­ply quiv­ered at edges of ed­dies.

These cap­tive-bred 1-yearolds — 960 of them — are thought to be hardier than the 4,000 hatch­lings that Colorado Parks and Wildlife bi­ol­o­gists put in Her­man Gulch last year. State crews con­ducted a sur­vey last week and found no ev­i­dence any of the hatch­lings sur­vived the hard win­ter.

A whole lot of peo­ple re­ally want the green­back cut­throats to make it in their an­ces­tral home.

So on Mon­day morn­ing, an ex­pand­ing cut­throats re­cov­ery team co­or­di­nated by CPW mo­bi­lized, with more than 50 vol­un­teers from Trout Un­lim­ited and other con­ser­va­tion groups haul­ing 20-pound bags of the 5-inch fish into the high-coun-


“C’mon, sweet­heart,” said Tom Riegel­man, 63, a Golden ho­tel in­dus­try con­sul­tant and life­long Trout Un­lim­ited mem­ber who car­ried his load of fish to a high spot be­neath snow-splotched cliffs of Pet­tin­gell Peak.

He care­fully low­ered the fish into a pro­tected, 3-foot­deep pool, leav­ing them in a plas­tic bag for about 15 min­utes to min­i­mize the shock of cooler wa­ter tem­per­a­tures be­fore slic­ing open the bag. He chose the spot for its ideal con­di­tions, “with lots of in­sect life along the edges, lots to eat” and veg­e­ta­tion, and sun­shine that lit up the cut­throats’ spots.

Most un­der­stood this is some­thing of an eco­log­i­cal long­shot be­cause green­back cut­throats — listed as threat­ened on the na­tion’s en­dan­gered species ros­ter — have all but dis­ap­peared. Af­ter all, evo­lu­tion is all about change, and species come and go.

Green­back cut­throats orig­i­nated in the South Platte River Basin head­wa­ters. They dis­ap­peared as hu­mans set­tled the re­gion, min­ing for gold that turned wa­ter toxic, stock­ing streams with non­na­tive fish in hopes of pro­mot­ing tourism.

State wildlife man­agers de­clared green­back cut­throats ex­tinct in the 1930s. But they re­dis­cov­ered them in 1953 and cel­e­brated them in 1994 as Colorado’s of­fi­cial state fish. How­ever, the fish that Colorado wildlife of­fi­cials touted as the state fish was a dif­fer­ent species of cut­throat trout.

In 2012, Univer­sity of Colorado ge­net­ics sci­en­tists de­ter­mined that only a few green­back cut­throats sur­vived in the wild, by a fluke, south­west of Colorado Springs, in the Arkansas River Basin. Back in the 1870s, as­pir­ing ho­tel re­sort op­er­a­tor Joseph Jones had cap­tured some green­backs from South Platte head­wa­ters and plopped them into Bear Creek near his prop­erty. CU sci­en­tists ver­i­fied that only the de­scen­dants of those fish car­ried the true green­back cut­throat genes.

CPW of­fi­cials now are work­ing in­tensely, gath­er­ing ge­netic ma­te­rial from Bear Creek fish and breed­ing tens of thou­sands of green­back cut­throats in hatch­eries cre­ated to stock Colorado streams with trout that com­pete with na­tive species.

CPW crews al­ready have trans­planted some green­back cut­throats suc­cess­fully into Zim­mer­man Lake, west of Fort Collins.

“This would be the first steam,” CPW aquatic bi­ol­o­gist Boyd Wright said Mon­day, di­rect­ing the trans­plant­ing op­er­a­tion along 3 miles of streams. “And this is a fish that evolved in streams.”

“Ul­ti­mately,” he said, “streams are where we want to see them back.”

If this sec­ond at­tempt at get­ting green­back cut­throats to sur­vive in Her­man Gulch fails, CPW of­fi­cials said they will try once more next year. State crews this year also are plan­ning to drop cut­throats into Dry Gulch, to the west of this site, and into Rock Creek in South Park.

But much de­pends on how the fish re­spond in this ideal habi­tat, a basin con­sid­ered eco­log­i­cally healthy. Bi­ol­o­gists used a rotenone poi­son to clear out non­na­tive trout that they say would have meant doom for the cut­throats. The poi­son tar­gets just fish, pre­serv­ing midges, flies and other in­sects that fish eat.

And around noon Mon­day, a slow sit­u­a­tion turned for the bet­ter.

Vol­un­teers no­ticed that af­ter about 20 min­utes in the wa­ter, the fish be­gan twist­ing and turn­ing their spot­ted flanks. A few darted into cur­rents from calm ed­dies.

“This is per­fect. Look, see, he just moved,” CPW tech­ni­cian Matt Guy­er­son, 25, said at the top of Her­man Gulch, look­ing down on a fish that food de­signer An­gela Hawkins, 39, of Ar­vada had just lov­ingly re­leased from her pack.

“He’s happy — try­ing to find a good hole to hide in,” Guy­er­son said. “They’re start­ing to move, just like wild pop­u­la­tions would.”

And a few of the in­tro­duced cut­throats be­gan bolt­ing up from muddy pools to­ward midges and flies danc­ing along sur­faces of streams.

Trout Un­lim­ited mem­ber Neil Fjeld­heim, 61, smiled broadly,

“It tells me they’re ac­cli­ma­tiz­ing fast. Al­most all of the ones I in­tro­duced had their heads up, look­ing up at the sur­face. I saw six rises,” Fjeld­heim said. “None died.”

Re­tired crit­i­cal-care nurse Doug Smith, 67, spot­ted four fish cut­ting into cur­rents and then flip­ping around ro­bustly. One of them oc­ca­sion­ally rose to­ward the sur­face.

“C’mon, guys, you’ve got to go to the sur­face and get the bugs,” Smith said.

Even if the green­back cut­throats don’t sur­vive in their na­tive habi­tat, the fish­sav­ing ef­fort is valu­able, Riegel­man said.

“You can­not change the di­rec­tion of evo­lu­tion,” he said. “I don’t think we can turn the clock back. But we can still pre­serve all kinds of won­der­ful things in the en­vi­ron­ment.”

And even if restora­tion proves im­pos­si­ble, he said, “we will learn to be bet­ter stew­ards.”

Photos by He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

Colorado Parks and Wildlife hatch­ery tech­ni­cian Dave Karr care­fully places 18 year­ling green­back cut­throat trout into a back­pack for trans­port at the Her­man Gulch trail­head near Sil­ver­thorne on Mon­day.

Mem­bers of a trout re­cov­ery team carry back­packs that are full of green­back cut­throats up the Her­man Gulch trail.

Keith Green­well, a vol­un­teer with Trout Un­lim­ited, re­leases 18 year­ling green­back cut­throat into a small pool in Her­man Gulch.

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