Backpacking for Greenbacks

By Dan Omasta (All photos courtesy of Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

It was turning out to be another beautiful July day in Colorado, as over 50 staff and volunteers from Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and various other government agencies and NGOs filed into the big dirt parking lot at the trailhead of Herman Gulch, just off I-70 west of Denver near Silver Plume.

Excitement was palpable, and everyone was ready to strap on their boots to help make a big difference for a small native trout—the greenback cutthroat.

The greenback, once believed to be extinct, is making a comeback in Colorado. Thanks to the efforts of state and federal agencies, NGOs and community volunteers, this threatened species is getting the boost it needs to return to its native range in the South Platte basin. In 2012, genetic scientists at the University of Colorado discovered a handful of the once-prolific trout in a small creek just outside of Colorado Springs. Since then, biologists from CPW, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, with boots-on-ground assistance from Trout Unlimited, have been collaborating to rebuild critical population strongholds along the Front Range.

Repopulating Herman Gulch with greenbacks is a big step in that effort.

As the hatchery trucks arrived with their big tanks full of eager (and presumably confused) fish, we all gathered behind the tailgate of a CPW truck and received instructions for transporting and releasing our native cargo. Then we separated into five groups that corresponded to certain distances along the trail: group five, for instance, would be hiking the full 3.5 miles above treeline, while group one would begin releasing fish in a particular stretch only a mile into the trek.

Everyone was excited as we lined up to get outfitted with our fish packs. Each TU volunteer and agency staff person would be carrying 15-20 yearlings (4-7 inches long) up the steep rocky trail into the remote, high-alpine headwaters.

The first mile of the hike was brutal--steep switchbacks made up the bulk of the first two hours of climbing. The whole experience felt like a Tough Mudder race combined with community conservation. The fish only had a few hours of oxygen in the bags, so volunteers slated to reach the highest stretches of stream moved quickly up the rocky, wooded path. Teams of fish packers often leap-frogged one another and received words of encouragement on the steady climb upward: “Almost there,” “It’s just around the corner,” “Sure, that’s what you said an hour ago!”

The hike was full of sweat, laughter and camaraderie as the group worked together to help establish this new population of native fish.

We had received instructions about where to release the fish along the small stream. Once our group reached our ¾ mile reach, we started looking for good habitat to release the fry. Volunteers split off from the group as they followed the sound of riffles and changes in gradient that suggested that on the other side of those willows would be a perfect eddy for these hungry, native trout.

At one bend, I unshouldered the pack and gently opened it along the bank. I set the bag of eager yearlings into the water to help them acclimate to the cold water—a process similar to bringing home that goldfish from the pet shop. About 15 minutes later, the fish were ready. As I poured the precious contents into the stream, the small greenbacks—maybe a dozen of them— swam eagerly out of the bag and into their new home in the clear, deep eddy by the undercut bank.

At first, they clumped together, seemingly unsure about where to go or hide in the cold, clear water. Then, a few of them finned into the current and began rising to the small mayfly hatch coming off the surface. These fish were raised in captivity, but generations of native instinct seemed to kick in almost immediately.

Repopulating a high alpine stream with fish that have never had to survive in such a harsh landscape continues to pose challenges. While these trout have done well in areas such as Zimmerman Lake, they must learn quickly the survival traits necessary to overcome runoff, ice flows and changing food patterns if they are going to stand a chance here. If this introduction is successful and the fish overwinter, Herman Gulch will become one of the first major streams to hold a significant population of pure greenback cutthroats.

This was a major undertaking and could not have been done without the dedication and resources of CPW biologists and hatchery technicians, federal agencies, NGOs and community volunteers. At the end of the day, our group helped to release 960 native greenbacks into Herman Gulch.

For me, the project also provided a shining example of teamwork and collaboration to counter the ongoing bitter partisanship and gridlock that has plagued our nation for years now. There we all were at 10,000 feet—families, retired nurses, young professionals, hunters, anglers, Democrats, Republicans, veterans and CEOs—all strapping on our hiking boots and working together to restore the greenback.

It was a good reminder of what can be accomplished when we work together.

For more information on greenback cutthroat trout recovery efforts, visit, or contact Dan Omasta, Colorado Trout Unlimited grassroots coordinator, at

Greenback Spawning at Zimmerman Lake - Success!

FORT COLLINS, CO – It was still dark out when I threw the thermos of coffee into the truck and left Denver for the Zimmerman Lake Trailhead just east of Cameron Pass.  The goal for the day was to join two other fellow TU volunteers and work alongside Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists to help with Greenback Cutthroat spawning at the pristine high alpine lake. Since 2013, CPW and Colorado Trout Unlimited have worked together to establish a population of Greenback broodstock up at Zimmerman Lake that can be used to help populate other streams throughout the cutthroat’s native range.  The recent spawning project took place over four days and engaged a handful of CPW staff along with eight CTU volunteers from various Front Range Chapters.

The spawning process was pretty straightforward and designed by CPW staff to expand the genetic pool of Greenback Cutthroat Trout.  The pictures below highlight much of the process that took place over the four days.  A big THANK YOU to all the volunteers who came out to support this important recovery effort!

CPW set up at the Zimmerman Lake inlet to capture spawning Greenbacks.

Fish were collected with a large net and put into a pen to be sorted and categorized by CPW staff and volunteers.


Fish were sorted based on their gender and stocking year.

RFID chips in the fish help to identify the stocking year and other critical data.

After the fish were sorted, CPW milked the males and females - making targeted genetic crosses among the various lineages to expand the genetic diversity.  The eggs and sperm were combined in bowls, packed into small coolers, put on ice, and shipped to the local fish hatchery in Leadville, CO for breeding.

This process is a critical step in the long-term recovery of the native Greenback Cutthroat Trout.  CTU is proud of the great work that its volunteers provided during these long days up at the lake.  The work undertaken at Zimmerman will help ensure that future fishermen and women are able to chase these rare fish throughout the Front Range for decades to come.

For more information on the project or to get involved with other upcoming Greenback recovery projects, contact Dan Omasta, CTU Grassroots Coordinator (

CTU Hiring River Cleanup Intern

Colorado Trout Unlimited is hiring an intern to help with our River Cleanups across Colorado. Most of our 24 chapters host at least one cleanup a year and we are hiring an intern to help make a bigger impact with river cleanups in local communities. This intern will also help to bring a strong conservation message to the cleanups and help to strengthen cleanup partnerships. This is a non paid position, however we will work with your college to arrange credit for the internship. Click here to view the position description. To apply for this internship please email your cover letter and resume to Stephanie Scott at



Runners Giving Back to Rivers?

Trout Unlimited has been very active since the floods of 2013. Four of our twenty four chapters were impacted by the floods; Alpine Anglers (Estes Park), St. Vrain Anglers (Longmont), Boulder Flycasters (Boulder), and Rocky Mountian Flycasters (Ft. Collins). Our chapters have been on the ground and working with existing partners like federal and local level governments, ditch companies, land owners, biologists and water suppliers; but recently an unexpected partner approached us and wanted to get involved in what we were doing. When all of that rain began to fall a lot of people had to change their plans. There was no exception for the Road Less Traveled Relays and Runners team whom organized the Flaming Foilage Relay.  The runners had trained  to complete this long and difficult race, and the race organizers had everything ready to go until the rain started to pour. Unfortunately, after all of the preparation, the 165 mile relay race from Idaho Springs to Buena Vista had to be canceled as it was scheduled the same weekend the flooding occurred.

Of course the runners were disappointed, but they were very understanding. All of the runners had already registered and paid for the race, and their money was non-refundable; even in the case of the flood. However, Paul Vanderheiden, the Race Director who works for Timberline Events wanted to do something with those registration fees that would give back to communities involved in the flood. Paul got in contact with the runners and promised the participants that he would make donations to groups that helped out people affected and/or groups helping with the rebuilding. Paul started to search for member groups that were involved in flood restoration projects.

Paul found information online about all of the work that Colorado Trout Unlimited had been doing with the flood restoration so he contacted Colorado Trout Unlimited wanting to donate to our efforts. This donation, courtesy of Roads Less Traveled Relays and Runners, will be used for on the ground restoration in the communities that were impacted from the floods.

For a lot of people the floods of 2013 were a horrific time. Thanks to groups like Roads Less Traveled Relays and Runners, Colorado Trout Unlimited can continue to be an active part of rebuilding the South Platte Basin. Timberline Events LLC has been a member of 1% For the Planet since 2006 and we thank them for giving back to conservation groups like Trout Unlimited.

Colorado's Water Plan Needs to Hear from TU and YOU!!

The need for Colorado’s Water Plan has been coming for a long time. Colorado is one of the only states in the West that does not have a formal water plan. On May 14, 2013 Governor Hickenlooper issued an executive order directing the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to commence work on the first ever Colorado Water Plan.  The plan is intended to help Colorado prepare for its water future. Specifically, Governor Hickenlooper ordered that the plan address the projected shortfall (aka “the gap”) between future water supply and demand and help Colorado reduce the practice of converting agricultural water rights to municipal water uses (aka “buy and dry”). A draft of the plan is due to the governor by the end of 2014. The final product is expected one year later. The CWCB has directed the public to comment on the water plan efforts via the nine Basin Roundtables. This is the route we must take to get our comments incorporated into each of the basin plans. The basin roundtables have been instructed to gather comments from the public and deliver their draft basin specific plan by July. In order for us to get comments incorporated into those basin specific plans we need to get to work quickly and have our comments to them before March 2014. Each of the basins are using the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI) report that they developed in 2010 as a starting point to develop their water plans. In this report the gaps, important water projects, supply needs etc. have been already identified in each basin.

Trout Unlimited has been working the past couple of months to develop an easy way for staff, board, chapters and members to provide comments on the water plan and have an opportunity to get the unified Trout Unlimited voice heard in each of the river basins. All 24 Chapters across Colorado have received the materials that they need in order to provide educated comments to each of their basins. If you would like more information about this effort or would like to receive the materials prepared please contact Stephanie Scott at For more information from the State on the water plan, visit the website at

Developing Colorado’s first ever water plan is not an easy task; however as a river conservation organization we could not let the opportunity pass to provide comments that would protect the fish and water that we as members need in our life in the future. We would love to hear comments from our members on what they would like to see incorporated into the plan.

Sportsmen Ride Right

While it may not be completely natural to think of ATVs and healthy streams in the same thought, the reality is that many people use ATVs to access their favorite fishing or hunting areas.  But with the rapid increase in the number of ATVs being used in the back-country, widespread negative impacts from renegade trails and illegal use are being seen throughout our last remaining roadless areas.  This can lead to widespread erosion, stream sedimentation, and general degradation of the habitat for all species in the forest. But recognizing that MOST sportsmen ride their ATVs responsibly has spawned a new effort to recognize and encourage those people who stay on authorized trails, and turn off their machines at the end of the road.  Organizing these people to be representative of the responsible use of ORVs is a good approach to helping to rein in those who abuse the privilege of ORV use on our public lands.

Colorado Trout Unlimited has signed on in support of this new initiative - I hope you give it a look.