Recovery programs work to build fish populations

Native species are at the front of many debates in Colorado. The latest debate of non-native vs. native species is being fought in Colorado's rivers and lakes.

As far back as 50 years ago, the native trout species of Colorado looked as if they went the way of the Do Do bird.

At that time tiny populations of two native trout the Rio Grande and greenback cutthroats were barely holding on in remote streams of Colorado mountains. The Colorado River cutthroat, was holding its own but faced a myriad of threats. The yellowfin greenback was already extinct.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife is pleased to say that the three remaining subspecies are making a remarkable comeback.

Different state agencies, federal agencies and citizens' groups with the cooperation of the of the Division, have developed recovery and conservation plans to establish secure, pure strains of Colorado's remaining native trout and self-sustaining populations in their home ranges.

"Our cutthroat trout are part of Colorado's wildlife heritage and are the only trout species that inhabited the state historically," said Tom Nesler, the Division's threatened and endangered aquatic species coordinator. "It is clearly reflected in our statewide fish-management policy to protect our remaining three native cutthroat subspecies by restoring and enhancing populations to suitable habitats whenever possible. We mean not only to secure these native fish from decline, but expect to feature them as unique fishery opportunities where feasible and compatible with conservation efforts."

By 1937, the greenback cutthroat, which is found only along the Front Range, was thought to be extinct. Like all native trout, the once abundant fish with its distinctive crimson gill slash and belly had been hit hard by habitat degradation, overfishing, competition from non-native trout and hybridization with rainbow trout.

From two small populations in Boulder and Larimer counties, brood stocks were developed and the species was restored into waters that were claimed from other species.

By 1978, the greenback's status was upgraded from endangered to threatened. Currently there are 18 self sustaining populations of the trout established in the South Platte River drainage and another four in the Arkansas drainage, according to the Division.

Recovery programs are in place here on the Western Slope also. The Colorado River cutthroat, is the latest native trout to get recovery attention. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming and Utah and the Colorado division of Wildlife have signed an agreement to restore the species to its native range.

Nesler said that the effort is working well. The conservation populations in 123 streams and 28 lakes is exceeding the Division's long term goals for recovery populations in 111 conservation populations in streams and in 15 lakes.

Some conservation groups are not satisfied with the effort and have put together a coalition to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife for failure to act within 90 days of their petition to list the Colorado River cutthroat as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Division is doing what it can to keep the Colorado Cutthroat from being listed as threatened. If listed, the decision could have major implications on some lakes and streams on the Western Slope.

According to the Division there are currently two isolation facilities, which are capable of rising .115 million cutthroat fry per year. Eric Hughes, division hatchery chief, said two more facilities are currently being built. One is scheduled to be completed in 2001 and the other in 2002.

"These new facilities should boost our capacity by more than one million fish a year," said Hughes. "These fish are fantastic, you have to see them to believe it and that makes all the challenges of rearing fish worthwhile."

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