Colorado’s ‘Extinct’ State Fish Makes Comeback in ‘Huge Breakthrough’

After a decade of farming the greenback cutthroat trout — first rediscovered in 2012 — state officials said the fish appears to be recovering.

Amid all the doomsday about the environment, A Colorado Pisces offers some welcome good news.

After 8 decades of suspected extinction, the Rocky Mountain State’s official fish was found to be self-replicating. The news follows a decade of efforts to bring the goldenback cutthroat trout back from the brink of extinction.

Wildlife officials had deemed the fish extinct by 1937, when it succumbed to overfishing, pollution from mining, and competition from other trout species.

Then in 2012, state officials found a wild population of the Greenback Cutthroat in Bear Creek. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has since kept the fish in other rivers across the state.

Last week, the department found the first evidence that those efforts were paying off: the goldenback cutthroat trout has started breeding in Herman Gulch. It is “one of the first places the agency stored it in its native South Platte River drainage,” CPW said in a press release.

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It’s a “huge breakthrough” for CPW’s water sports team, Gov. Jared Polis’ office said Friday. Wildlife officials sounded even more ecstatic.

“It’s just great to see that the hard work that everyone has put into saving these fish is starting to pay off,” said Kevin Rogers, CPW aquarium researcher, who has devoted much of his career to saving the greenbacks. “This is just further validation that our conservation practices are working and that we can save species on the edge.”

Goldback Cutthroat Trout
Bruce Roselund of the US Fish and Wildlife Service shows a Greenback Cutthroat Trout in 2020; (Photo/Bruce Roselund)

An intense conservation effort

The discovery of a 2012 population Cutthroat trout in a narrow stretch of Bear Creek prompted a “massive effort” to help them thrive, officials said.

The event produced the Greenback Recovery Team, a multi-agency group of state and federal water researchers and biologists. They protected the 3.5 mile stretch of water that was home to the only known trout population at the time.

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They then developed a broodstock in a hatchery, creating a source of fish that they could introduce to other suitable habitats.

In 2016, CPW officials began stocking juvenile fish, or fry, at Herman Gulch, a branch of the South Platte near Denver. Although they stored greenback fry in other streams, only the fish in Herman Gulch have reached adulthood and reproduced.

Every summer since then, Colorado officials have carried sacks of live fry up the steep mountain trails to take them to likely habitats. They also experimented with different ages and sizes over a 3-year period.

“The news of the natural reproduction of the goldenback cutthroat trout in Herman Gulch is truly monumental,” said Josh Nehring, CPW Deputy Water Director.

Greenback trout
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials partner with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to sample Dry Gulch in Clear Creek Drainage in 2018 in search of endangered greenback cutthroat trout; (Photo/US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Never a safe bet

Even after the discovery of trout in 2012, increased recreation and traffic continued to threaten the health of their habitat.

There were flash floods. Invasive brown trout moved upstream. Forest fires broke out in the surrounding forests. Foot and vehicle traffic sucked more sediment into the waterway.

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Still, officials repeatedly shielded the trout’s surroundings ongoing threats. CPW even used underwater cameras to monitor the population through “less stressful techniques.”

When officers found greenbacks measuring up to 12 inches long as well as roasts in Herman Gulch, they were overjoyed.

“Our team of field technicians were literally giving high-fives right there in the creek when we caught the first fry to spawn this year,” said Boyd Wright, a Fort Collins aquatic biologist. “When we caught a yearling fish from 2021 shortly after, we were really blown away.”

Officials hope to find more positive signs of the fish’s comeback in the years to come.

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