Cutthroat trout going native in waters of its past

Dan Kowalski, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, releases some of the 250 or so native cutthroat trout recently introduced in Woods Lake near Telluride.

Around 250 fingerling cutthroat trout such as this were stocked recently in Woods Lake near Telluride in an effort to resotore native fish to their historic range.



Cutthroat trout have been eliminated from many rivers and streams in western Colorado because of habitat loss, water-quality impacts and the introduction of nonnative species.

A plan to increase the range of native cutthroat trout in the San Juan Mountains has accomplished a critical step with the recent stocking of 250 cutthroat trout in Woods Lake southwest of Telluride.

Woods Lake, located in the headwaters basin of Fall Creek, was selected for the restoration project because of it remoteness and pristine waters, said Dan Kowalski, an aquatic researcher with Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Montrose.

“There are only a few spots in western Colorado suitable for this type of project,” he said.

Once the trout have established a viable population in the lake, it’s expected the lake will provide brood stock for further cutthroat conservation efforts throughout the Dolores and Gunnison river basins.

“This area was populated with native trout before settlers arrived in Colorado, but the fish haven’t been present in, probably, over a half a century,” Kowalski said. “This project will help give the cutthroat a long-term foothold in the area, expand their numbers and range, and benefit native trout conservation throughout southwest Colorado.”     

The source of the transplanted trout, part of a lineage of cutthroat trout tentatively being referred to as the Gunnison/Colorado strain, was a small stream on the Uncompahgre Plateau that biologists say appears to have never been stocked, meaning the fish are aboriginal or native.

In order to advance the genetic diversity of existing cutthroat stocks, other fish from the same Uncompahgre stream will be spawned next spring to supply more fish to Woods Lake and nearby Muddy Creek and Fall Creek.

The latter two streams are open for fishing (artificial fly and lure only) and anglers are requested to practice catch-and-release.

A similar cutthroat restoration project is being done in the upper Hermosa Creek drainage just north of the Durango Mountain at Purgatory ski area near Durango.

When that project is completed in about five years, biologists say more than 20 miles of Hermosa Creek and feeder streams will be home to native cutthroats.

Cutthroat trout have been eliminated from many rivers and streams in western Colorado because of habitat loss, water-quality impacts and the introduction of nonnative species.

Projects such as Woods Lake may prevent the need for an endangered-species listing, Kowalski said.   

“Restoring these native fish should be important to all citizens and water users in the basin that depend on our rivers for irrigation and drinking water because a federal listing could affect the state’s management of the species and water use in the basin,” Kowalski said.

Another subspecies of cutthroat trout, the greenback cutthroat, has been in the news recently after researchers from the University of Colorado discovered a remnant population of genetically pure greenbacks in a small stream just west of Colorado Springs.

Some of those trout are being protected in state and federal hatcheries while a fishing closure has been initiated on the four miles of Bear Creek in which the greenback trout were found.


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