Cutthroat

Extinct no more! CPW discovers remnant San Juan trout

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has found cutthroat trout that are unique to the San Juan River Basin in southwest Colorado. Photo courtesy of  Colorado Parks and Wildlife . 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has found cutthroat trout that are unique to the San Juan River Basin in southwest Colorado. Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists recently discovered a unique genetic lineage of the Colorado River cutthroat trout in southwest Colorado that was previously thought to be extinct. The discovery was officially recognized earlier this year thanks to advanced DNA testing techniques. Eight small populations of these trout have been found in isolated habitats on streams of the San Juan River Basin within the San Juan National Forest and on private property.
 
Based on two samples from 1874 and housed in the Smithsonian, researchers from the University of Colorado previously identified a Colorado River cutthroat trout lineage with genetic markers unique to the San Juan basin. Unfortunately, no modern populations of the lineage were known to remain at that time.  CPW researchers and biologists, however, set out to test all the southwest Colorado cutthroat trout populations they could find to see if any carried the unique San Juan genetic fingerprint.  Their efforts bore fruit with this year’s discovery of eight such small populations.

“We always ask ourselves, ‘What if we could go back to the days before pioneer settlement and wide-spread non-native fish stocking to see what we had here?’”
— Jim White, CPW Biologist

 “Careful work over the years by biologists, finding those old specimens in the museum and the genetic testing gave us the chance, essentially, to go back in time. Now we have the opportunity to conserve this native trout in southwest Colorado.” said CPW biologist, Jim White.

Colorado TU and the Five Rivers Chapter stand to play a key role in the story of these fish going forward.  “This is far and away the most exciting thing to happen to southwest native trout in my lifetime,” said TU representative Garrett Hanks of Durango. “I am excited to participate in the future of the San Juan cutthroat trout – from headwaters to the high desert.”

TU has a track record of partnership in successful native fish restoration projects in the region, working closely with CPW and the San Juan National Forest.  Among other projects, the partners have collaborated to restore Colorado River cutthroat trout into the headwaters of the Hermosa Creek watershed – building barriers to secure fish from downstream invasion by non-natives, improving stream and riparian habitat, and helping with reintroduction efforts.  The discovery of remnant San Juan lineage fish opens the door for new restoration efforts into additional, suitable habitats.

“We’ve appreciated the chance to work with such great partners to conserve native trout in southwest Colorado,” said CTU Executive Director David Nickum.  “It is nothing less than remarkable to now have the chance to join them in restoring a fish we thought had been lost to extinction.”

Biologists have already had to sweep into action to protect the rare, newly-found cutthroats.  Two populations were in areas impacted by the 416 fire this summer, and fish were salvaged from those habitats to preserve their unique genetic stocks before they could be lost to post-fire ash flows.

A fish barrier installed to protect Hermosa Creek native trout, through a partnership including the San Juan National Forest, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited.  More such projects will be needed to secure homes for the newly-rediscovered San Juan lineage cutthroat.

A fish barrier installed to protect Hermosa Creek native trout, through a partnership including the San Juan National Forest, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited.  More such projects will be needed to secure homes for the newly-rediscovered San Juan lineage cutthroat.

Behind the Fin with John Aaron

Picture taken January 2017.

Picture taken January 2017.

Join us "behind the fin" with John Aaron. John has been a local chapter president, Vice President of CCTU, Board member of two chapters, and a fund raiser for both local chapters and the State council as well as a behind the scenes advocate for trout and clean water for years.

How long have you been a TU member?

Since 1979.

What chapter are you involved with?

Originally, with Wild Trout chapter which became the Denver chapter, then with Cutthroat Chapter.

What made you want to be involved with TU?

Was looking for a group that was flyfishing oriented and might know where to catch them.

What is your favorite activity or project you have done with TU?

Too many to account for, but a couple that stand out, fighting the building of the proposed Two Folks dam, and the establishment of the South Platte restoration program with Todd Fehr, resulting in the restoration of miles in in town fisheries.

I know you won’t tell me your favorite spot, but what is your second favorite place to fish or favorite fishing story?   

Wind River in Wyoming and the Conejos River in Colorado. Did I mention Belize?

What does being a part of TU mean to you?

Enhancing the living places of fishes no matter the species.

What else do you do in your spare time or work?

Working on additional restoration efforts through non-TU projects, teaching new comers, Fly tying and attempting to raise the awareness of politicians to environmental concerns.

Keeping Natives Alive on Abrams Creek

A unique species of native cutthroat on Abrams Creek: help is on the way.  By Randy Scholfield

Living with less water—that’s the reality facing all of us who depend on the Upper Colorado River for our drinking water, food production, and outdoor recreation.

A recent scientific paper found that the Upper Colorado River Basin has lost 7 percent of its flows in last three decades due to higher temperatures caused by human-induced climate change. In a basin that supplies water for 40 million people and where every drop is used and accounted for, that’s only the latest red flag that our world is changing and that we need to take collective action to keep our rivers and communities healthy.

That’s why projects like Abrams Creek are so important.

This tiny creek outside of Gypsum has a rare population of native Colorado River cutthroat trout that’s genetically unique and the only aboriginal trout population in the Eagle River watershed. And because Abrams Creek has a lower elevation than many cutthroat streams, say biologists, its native trout might be better adapted to warmer temperatures—another reason why this vulnerable fish population is important to preserve.

For more than a century, however, Abrams Creek has been de-watered by irrigation diversions that drastically reduce its flows in late summer and fall. The trout have been hanging on, but they’re seriously pressured. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has called this population the “highest priority” for cutthroat conservation efforts in Western Colorado.

In 2016, Trout Unlimited’s Mely Whiting helped negotiate a deal with the local irrigation company, Buckhorn Valley Metro District, which agreed to pipe their irrigation ditch and thereby reduce leakage by 40 percent, with the water savings going back into the creek to keep the fish healthy.

The biggest hurdle was money. Piping the irrigation ditch along several miles of ditch would cost more than $1 million.

A year later, says Whiting, this fundraising goal has been met, thanks to efforts by TU, Eagle Valley Trout Unlimited, Buckhorn Valley, CPW and the Eagle River Watershed Council, who secured grants from a variety of sources, including the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado River Basin Roundtable, Bureau of Reclamation and the town of Gypsum, as well as donations from BLM, Colorado's Species Conservation Fund and local buisnesses like Fortius Realty, NAI Mountain and Alpine Bank.

“Turns out, a lot of people were ready and willing to step up to protect this jewel of a stream,” says Whiting. Because of these collective efforts, she says, the project is officially a go. Construction is expected to start next year on piping the ditch, and the future of Abrams Creek cutthroats looks bright.

In an age of changing climate and paralyzing partisanship, it’s easy to get discouraged about the prospects for our rivers and streams.

One lesson of Abrams Creek: In a world of less water, there’s hope for preserving the health and quality of our rivers, fish and wildlife if we dig in and work together on solutions.

For more information and to donate to the project, go to TU’s Abrams Creek project page.

Randy Scholfield is Trout Unlimited’s director of communications for the Southwest.