Cutthroat plan in place

DOW determined to see Colorado's original trout thrive in Trappers area

By Charlie Meyers The Denver Post

As homecomings go, the return of a particular trout to that splendid basin whose epicenter is Trappers Lake doesn't exactly rank up there with the prodigal son or even Lassie. But it does get high marks for historic and biological correctness at a time when restoration of the Colorado River cutthroat ranks high on the list of wildlife priorities.

As we have learned in recent weeks, Colorado's original trout are under assault from both friend and foe - genetic dispute among those with different views about saving them, genocide from an assortment of human-induced environmental ills.

All of which brings us to this magic place at the heart of the White River Plateau, better known simply as the Flat Tops.

"Trappers Lake historically had the most robust population of Colorado River cutts," said Kevin Rogers, a Colorado Division of Wildlife research biologist. "It's one of the largest natural bodies of water in the state at a perfect elevation, the perfect natural habitat."

Thanks to man's infatuation, the big lake also has some huge problems: Yellowstone cutthroat were introduced during the 1940s, and the resulting hybridization clouded the gene pool. DOW no longer takes eggs from Trappers for transplant elsewhere.

Brook and rainbow trout were added later, competitors for a limited food supply.

But there was another element to all this fish swapping, a twist that promises a considerable boost to the recovery effort. When Colorado made a 1931 trade with California for golden trout, the cutthroat it bartered came from a still- pure Trappers Lake.

These expatriates now swim in the lower Williamson Lakes, part of a seven-lake chain in the southern Sierra Nevada Range. Rogers, who visited the site last summer, hopes to bring pure-strain progeny back to the Trappers drainage.

"It's the perfect situation, using the cutthroat strain that originated here to repopulate it," Rogers said.

Alas, the recovery will not include Trappers Lake, which is too large, too deep, too complicated to achieve an eradication of exotic species. Instead, DOW plans to utilize the several smaller lakes and streams squiggled across a basin spanning more than a hundred square miles.

This return of the native involves an extended public and environmental review process before the real work begins: purging interloping trout from these waters while constructing barriers to further exotic invasion. But the basic elements for eventual success all are in place.

If the project gains approval, DOW crews would reclaim lake and streams around basin in serial fashion, then restock them with the original Trappers cutthroat strain brought back from Williamson.

Meanwhile, Rogers and area biologist Boyd Wright are engaged in a three-pronged effort to maintain a vibrant, if flawed, Colorado cutthroat presence in the big lake.

* Monitor cutthroat spawning and survival against the persistent whirling disease.

* Net and remove brook trout that make up approximately 40 percent of the Trappers bio- mass. DOW handles approximately 700 brookies each year.

* Encourage anglers to keep the brookies they catch.

* Maintain a stocking program of pure Colorado River cutthroat to boost the genetic makeup of the population.

"The wild card here is whirling disease, which has taken control in big Trappers," Rogers said.

DOW plans to construct barriers to prevent infected fish from moving up the creeks leading to uninfected waters such as Little Trappers Lake.

Anglers who visit the big lake can expect to catch cutts and brookies as large as 16 inches in a spectacular setting among bluff, flat-topped mountains like frosted layer cakes after an autumn snow.

It's something worth coming back for.