Greenback Cutthroat Trout

Fishing for Fahrenheit

Guy Turenne and Phil Wright trekking through deep snow to find a buried stream temperature probe on Fall Creek. Photo Credit: Phil Wright, 2019.

Guy Turenne and Phil Wright trekking through deep snow to find a buried stream temperature probe on Fall Creek. Photo Credit: Phil Wright, 2019.

It was a beautiful November day in the high country, as Guy Turenne and Phil Wright climbed their way over drifts of fresh snow along Fall Creek – a tiny tributary in the heart of Colorado’s northern mountains. 

This time, it was not fish that they were after, but a small temperature probe the size of a silver dollar, lying in wait at the bottom of the stream channel.  Months earlier, Guy and Phil, along with dozens of other TU volunteers, worked with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to place these loggers in different stream locations throughout the eastern half of the state.

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Fish are heavily affected by temperature – especially trout.  Changes in thermal regimes over the course of a few hours to a few months can trigger fish to spawn, eat, grow, and even breathe.  We all saw stories in the hot, dry summer months of 2018, when low flows and extreme ambient air temperatures brought some rivers to over 79°F.  At that point, dissolved oxygen becomes increasingly scarce and fish can die. 

Stream temperatures also impact the normal day-to-day and cyclic activities of our trout.  For example, Rainbow trout will spawn in the spring when water temperature begins to rise and reaches 45-56 degrees F (52°F is ideal).  Conversely, Brown trout will spawn in the fall as water temperatures drop within 44-48°F.  Each species of trout thrives at different conditions.

So, what does any of this have to do with two TU volunteers hiking through two feet of snow in the middle of Winter?

As it turns out – a lot!  Just as water temperature affects the spawning cycle of Rainbows and Browns, thermal regimes play an important role in the development of Cutthroat trout – in this case, Greenbacks and Rio Grandes.  These fish have evolved over thousands of years to eat, grow, and reproduce at specific thermal conditions in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.  As Trout Unlimited and native trout recovery partners continue to engage in projects that reclaim habitat and stock native fingerlings, we must ensure that the temperature regimes will support those fish long term.

But collecting that level of data across thousands of miles of small tributaries and remote drainages can pose a challenge to recovery partners.  Fortunately, TU volunteers came to the rescue.

Chris Carroll, aquatic biologist with the U.S. Forest Service teaches TU volunteers how to attach stream temperature probes during April 2018 training.

Chris Carroll, aquatic biologist with the U.S. Forest Service teaches TU volunteers how to attach stream temperature probes during April 2018 training.

With critical funding supplied by the Western Native Trout Initiative (WNTI) and the U.S. Forest Service, volunteers from several chapters helped to identify future habitat for the returning Greenback and Rio Grande Cutthroat.  In the Spring of 2018, the project kicked off with a USFS-led volunteer training during the annual CTU Rendezvous in Keystone.  From that point, chapter representatives recruited and trained their own local group of temperature probe deployment experts. Over the course of the summer, TU volunteers exceeded the original 30-site goal by setting and maintaining over 40 HOBO stream temperature loggers in several key drainages that have potential for recovery sites.

Evergreen TU volunteer, Mike Goldblatt, points to a recently-installed stream temperature probe in the Bear Creek drainage.

“We observed that the RMF membership and other members of the community seem to value stream monitoring efforts in general, are strongly supportive of such efforts, and are willing to volunteer,” explained Phil Wright, project coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Flycasters Chapter. 

As the leaves changed and fell from the trees, TU volunteers went back into the field to collect the data – which was then transferred to biologists at USFS and CPW.  From there, recovery partners will be able to show a better picture of which watersheds will make good candidates for future reintroduction. 

Trout Unlimited volunteers continue to help advance native trout recovery throughout Colorado each year – even winning a regional volunteer service award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018.  Whether its notching beaver dams, backpacking in fingerlings, or tramping through two feet of powder, TU volunteers are committed and engaged in the recovery of our native trout.  The stream temperature study is another chapter of this important saga – and one that will undoubtedly be the preface for the next wave of native cutthroat recovery sites.  Who knows… maybe one of those streams will be in your backyard!

Colorado Trout Unlimited would like to recognize our valuable partners and chapters who have made this project possible:

Western Native Trout Initiative, the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Evergreen TU, West Denver TU, Rocky Mountain Flycasters TU, Alpine Anglers TU, Cutthroat Chapter TU, Pikes Peak TU, San Luis Valley TU, and Boulder Flycasters TU.

If you are interested to learn more about this project or volunteer, please visit Colorado TU’s Native Trout Page.

5 Tips for Avoiding Frustrations with Tenkara & Native Greenback Cutthroat

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Tenkara USA's Daniel Galhardo and Colorado Trout Unlimited's Dan Omasta, Grassroots Coordinator recently sat down to talk about CTU's efforts in river conservation and fisheries protections across the state. Omasta discusses the recent policy victories for public lands as well as CTU's programs in youth education and community engagement. They also discussed the true lineage of the native Greenback Cutthroat Trout and why some anglers might be surprised to learn that they have been seeing a hybrid version of Colorado's state fish rather than a true greenback. This is because of recent a study by scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where they found that the pure genetics of the greenback were isolated to ponds just outside of Bear Creek and Bear Creek itself. Take a listen below or read the full transcript of the episode here

VIDEO: Reintroduction of Native Greenback Trout in Estes Park, CO

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Join Alpine Anglers Trout Unlimited Chapter as they head out to the Big Thompson for a day of fishing. Learn about the important work going on in the area in regards to habitat restoration to help with the reintroduction of native Greenback Cutthroat Trout. Check out the great video below and learn more about what the chapter is doing here.

Learn about fishing the Big Thompson and other waters surrounding Estes Park, Colorado, along with the reintroduction of the Greenback Cutthroat Trout.

National Funds to Support Greenback Recovery in CO

JANUARY 4, 2018 – The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) has recently announced their slate of awardees for the competitive Bring Back the Natives Grant (BBN)– a program that will provide $1 million in grants to support habitat restoration and other on-the-ground projects that advance recovery goals of native fish throughout the United States in 2018-19. A partnership between NFWF, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bass Pro Shops and the Brunswick Public Foundation, “Bring Back the Natives represents the benefits of coordinated efforts between private landowners and federal agencies to improve the health of watersheds,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO, NFWF.

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As one of the 15 grant recipients, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) will receive $60,000 to support the design and construction of a critical temporary fish barrier on Cornelius Creek.  Located in the US Forest Service Canyon Lakes Ranger District (USFS-CLRD), the George and Cornelius Creek drainage is one of the most significant Greenback Cutthroat recovery sites to date.

The Greenback cutthroat trout is currently listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and is believed to have been endemic to coldwater streams and lakes of the South Platte River Basin. Once a thriving species, the Greenback has suffered significant impacts from human development, competition from non-native fish, and the introduction of whirling disease.  Once thought to be extinct, the native trout is making a comeback thanks to a coalition of state and federal agencies, non-profits, private landowners, and public volunteers.

The George and Cornelius Creek watershed has been identified as a high priority for establishing a robust Greenback cutthroat trout metapopulation. Due to its relatively low elevation compared to that of many other streams in the basin where cutthroat trout reintroduction may be feasible, these creeks feature thermal conditions that fall within an optimal range for cutthroat trout recruitment. Additionally, these streams are already managed for a Greenback cutthroat trout recovery population with regard to the Endangered Species Act, Section 7.

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Due to the complexity of the habitat within the drainage, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the US Forest Service will take on the project in stages.  With the presence of both whirling disease (WD) and non-native fish in the area, biologists will build three temporary barriers that will segment the two tributaries and allow for effective treatment over the next few years.  Once the streams have been cleared of WD and non-native competitors, the Greenbacks will be introduced.  This process is expected to take several years.

The desired outcome of the entire multi-phase project is successful establishment of a self-sustaining Greenback cutthroat trout population in 14 miles of connected habitat. At this writing, Greenbacks only occur in the wild in four waters, three of which are the result of recent introductions.

The Greenback Cutthroat Trout Recovery Plan (US Fish & Wildlife Service 1998), although in the early stages of being updated, calls for—among several other requirements—stable Greenback populations in at least 31 stream miles in order for the species to be considered for de-listing. Currently, there are no stream populations in the South Platte Basin that meet the Recovery Plan’s criteria for “stable conservation populations.” Therefore, the importance of the George and Cornelius Creek Project, which is slated to create up to 14 miles of such habitat, cannot be overstated.

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The Cornelius Creek barrier is essential to the overall success of the project by enabling CPW biologists to treat the upper section of the creek while concurrent restoration work is being completed in the other units.  With the funding provided by the NFWF Bring Back the Natives Grant, CPW will now have the resources necessary to move forward in this critical recovery effort and secure a large drainage for the Greenback.

Note: Due to various treatment protocols for Whirling Disease (which has been found in the area), the entire project will likely be completed near 2026.  The barriers will be in place by the end of 2019.  For more information, please contact Dan Omasta, CTU Grassroots Coordinator (domasta@tu.org).

For more information on the NFWF BBN Grant and other recipients, Click Here.

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 www.Coloradotu.org, or contact Dan Omasta, Colorado Trout Unlimited grassroots coordinator, at domasta@tu.org.

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 (domasta@tu.org).