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Cutthroat Country!

Cutthroat Country!

Native trout conservation in the West involves more subspecies of cutthroat trout than any other, and the results of those efforts are giving anglers more and more opportunities throughout the Rocky Mountain states.

Spawning greenback cutthroat trout at Fern Lake outlet, Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Chris Kennedy/USFWS

By Craig Springer

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Rocky Mountain West holds a treasure chest for outdoorsmen and women. Its riches are many, with copious opportunities to hunt big game and birds and to fish for warm- and coldwater fishes. But it's the region's colorful cutthroat trout that are the shimmering jewels on top of cache.

Anglers in the region are blessed with several cutthroat trout subspecies with which to match wits, from Montana to New Mexico. The subspecies are unique, scientists say, because they have been isolated from each other for thousands of years. Essentially, each cutthroat subspecies is in itself an expression of the different environments it inhabits. Take for example a Snake River finespotted cutthroat trout, speckled with pepper flakes all over, and a Rio Grande cutthroat, whose appearance is marked by a few club-shaped spots on the back and tail: same species, different habitats, and both lots of fun to fool on the end of a fly rod.



New Mexico is home to many firsts: the birthplace of the atomic age, the cradle of rocketry - and trout. Four centuries before Oppenheimer's guys tinkered with uranium at Los Alamos, at least one of Coronado's men was thinking about trout.

In 1541, as the intrepid explorers passed near the town of Pecos, at least one Spaniard noted Rio Grande cutthroat trout swimming about Glorieta Creek, a 20-minute drive from today's Santa Fe. A Spaniard, Pedro Castaneda, made the first-ever written record of trout in the New World: "There is a little stream which abounds in excellent trout and otters, and there are very large bears and good falcons hereabouts."

Centuries later, New Mexico is a different place. Glorieta Creek is all but a sandy wash. The otters are gone, grizzlies are gone, and this handsome trout, the official state fish of New Mexico, has retreated to a mere handful of miles of headwater streams.


This cutthroat subspecies occurs today in a fraction of its original range. It once swam the coldwater tributaries of the Rio Grande and in New Mexico and southern Colorado, and possibly even in a few creeks in Chihuahua, Mexico, and in the Davis Mountains of Texas, as reported by Civil War soldiers.

But all is not lost. The fish still provides anglers a chance to go fish in high-country streams; that is, if they're willing to hike. The headwaters of the Rio de las Vacas and Rio Cebolla in the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos have stable populations of Rio Grande cutthroat trout. A few creeks in the Pecos Wilderness, just a stone's throw from where Coronado's men first saw the cutthroat, offer some fishing. Tiny creeks like the Rito Valdez, the Rito Azul, and the Rito del Padre harbor relic populations.

Fishing opportunities are on the increase, thanks to the conservation work of the New Mexico Fishery Resources Office, a part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The NMFRO and the Jicarilla Apache Tribe have worked together to restore native Rio Grande cutthroat trout to native habitats on the reservation. The restoration work is still under way, so populations are presently closed to fishing on the reservation. More streams could well be on their way to harboring the native trout.

Restoring native trout to native habitats almost always involves an element of removing non-native fish. In the late 19th century, rainbow trout native to the Pacific Northwest were planted in waters across the Rockies from Montana southward - all on top of the existing cutthroat populations. The result didn't bode well for the native trout. Rainbow trout and cutthroat trout are so closely related that they could interbreed. And they did. In short order, streams were populated with mongrel hybrid offspring of the two species. Then throw brown trout into the mix. This fish, originally from Europe, easily took hold in the Rockies and complicated matters for native trout. Brown trout spawn in November to December; the eggs incubate in stream gravels, and the young emerge in the spring. All cutthroat trout subspecies spawn in the spring and their offspring become free-swimming in the summer, but they then face competition for food and space from brown trout young that have already grown for several months. The native trout lose the battle, one that's compounded by the loss of habitat, primarily from over-grazing livestock and irrigation diversions. Perhaps none of the cutthroat subspecies have been immune.



Just to the north, over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from where Coronado's men first recorded truchas, the threatened greenback cutthroat trout has faced headfirst a hard current of extinction. Like a salmon leaps over seemingly insurmountable barriers, the greenback cutthroat trout has overcome long odds on survival. Only a few short years ago it was poised to fall into an abyss. Dedicated conservationists intervened.

Greenback cutthroat trout, native to the waters of the upper South Platte and Arkansas rivers, were hit hard by the 1880s by over-fishing from settlers in the Denver area and along the Front Range. Mining pollution also took its toll. The Colorado Museum of Natural History reported in 1939 that this colorful cutthroat was no more - extinct.

But about 30 years later, Dr. Robert Behnke from Colorado State University made a discovery that set in motion a huge conservation success story. Five streams inside Rocky Mountain National Park near Boulder still harbored pure greenback cutthroats!

The trout was placed on the endangered species list in 1973, and recovery efforts were set in motion. Those efforts paid dividends, and the trout was upgraded to threatened status in 1978, which paved the way for the limited no-kill fishing that exists today.

Today, according to Bruce Rosenlund of the USFWS Colorado Fish and Wildlife Management Assistance Office, greenback cutthroat trout have been restored to nearly 100 miles of streams and 450 acres of lakes. Restoration has moved forward in large part because of the hard work of ardent anglers and many dedicated partners, such as Rocky Mountain National Park, Trout Unlimited and the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Leadville National Fish Hatchery in Colorado will play a pivotal role in restoration, too, with establishment of a new greenback cutthroat brood stock. The hatchery has been renovated and will have its first greenback cutthroat trout this summer. Hatchery biologists will develop a brood stock of greenbacks f

rom the Arkansas River headwaters. Their eggs, about 250,000 a year, will be hatched and grown out by the CDOW for eventual stocking.

More streams are planned for restoration and the ultimate de-listing of the greenback. Toward that end, Rosenlund says the next step in securing the future of the fish involves not only getting greenbacks into new streams, but also connecting existing headwater stream populations to each other - something that will help make the populations more robust, healthy and secure.

It's an axiom: Native trout management involves removing exotic or non-native fish, and the most efficient and cost-effective way to do that is with antimycin, a chemical toxic to fish. It's been an indispensable tool in restoring greenbacks. Given that rainbow trout and cutthroat trout easily hybridize, eliminating all of the rainbow trout is necessary. Electro-fishing doesn't catch all fish; it's selective toward big fish, and the little fish get away. To recover imperiled trout, reclaiming habitat - getting non-native trout out of good trout habitat - is essential. The only way to do that is with antimycin. There is no scientific evidence that it causes cancer, as has been purported. This EPA-approved compound is a designer chemical for killing fish and does not persist in the environment. It breaks down in hours and is used at extremely low concentrations - at about one tablespoon in the equivalent of 5.3 million eight-ounce glasses of water.


Other native fish that have benefited from the use of antimycin include the Snake River finespotted cutthroat trout. Some folks know it as the Jackson Hole cutthroat, given its proximity to the Wyoming town. It's also known by the initiated as a strong fighter - on par with rainbow trout. Because of that quality, it's probably the most commonly cultured cutthroat stocked outside its native range of western Wyoming and southeastern Idaho.

Inside its native range, biologists from the Jackson National Fish Hatchery, located on the National Elk Refuge, are working to establish self-sustaining populations in the wild. Toward that end, the hatchery has turned away from traditional fish culture techniques. To help keep the "wild" in wild trout, the Snake River cutthroat trout at the hatchery have minimal contact with people. Wild conditions are simulated as much as possible, and every year, wild Snake River cutts are added to the brood stock to keep it robust. The intention is to have a fish stocked in the wild better able to face the rigors of the wild.

Snake River cutthroat trout go to Palisades Reservoir on the Idaho-Wyoming state line, and into Grassy Lake between Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. The hatchery will have succeeded when self-sustaining populations establish runs in tributary streams to the lakes.

An excellent fishery exists for Snake River cutthroats in a tailwater fishery on the Shoshone River near Cody. Following a severe scouring flood, one that removed spawning gravels from Cottonwood Creek in Grand Teton National Park, Jackson NFH biologists were able to keep the Snake River cutthroat trout population going by planting eggs in hatching boxes. This subspecies has the distinction of dominating its native range, and it is secure.



Silas Goodrich had something in common with about 50 million Americans - a passion for fishing. Goodrich was a member of the Corps of Discovery and was distinguished among Lewis and Clark's men as a fisherman. He caught the West Slope cutthroat trout that Lewis would describe in his journal, the first scientific description of a cutthroat trout, albeit 260 years after Coronado's encounter with Rio Grande cutts.

The West Slope cutthroat carries the scientific name, Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi in honor to the Corps. Since Goodrich landed a half-dozen cutthroats 16 to 24 inches long in 1805, a great deal has transpired.

This fish had the largest natural distribution of all the cutthroats, occurring from southern portions of British Columbia and Alberta, south through the Idaho panhandle and western Montana, and the far northwest tip of Wyoming. Isolated natural populations exist in the headwaters of the John Day River in Oregon and the east-slope Cascade Mountain drainages in Washington.

But the West Slope persists in only a fraction of its original range, from an onslaught of habitat loss and competition with non-native trout. The USFWS, Indian tribes and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department are restoring habitat. Simple road culverts can block West Slope cutthroat trout from reaching spawning habitats or refuge from seasonal hot and cold weather extremes.

The Fish Passage Program of the USFWS provided funds for biologists to replace culverts, and the benefits to fish are immediate. Replacing road culverts or removing obsolete low-head dams immediately connects fish to necessary habitats.

Creston National Fish Hatchery in Montana contributes to restoration and keeping this trout off the endangered species list and available for anglers. The hatchery works closely with the state of Montana and Indian tribes, raising West Slope cutthroat trout for sportfishing on state and tribal waters. Creston NFH gets eggs from the Washoe Park State Fish Hatchery and grows the trout out to stockable size. The fish then make their way to several fisheries, including Rogers Lake near Kalispell, Turtle Lake on the Flathead Reservation, and Goose Lake on the Black Feet Reservation near Browning. They might eventually make their way to an angler's hand.

* * *

Bringing one of these colorful shimmering jewels to hand might be a compliment to your abilities with a rod, reading water, and trying to outwit a fish, but these cutthroats are much more. They're swimming relics, artifacts of the geologic past and testaments to the determination of angler-conservationists and biologists that they should persist.

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