TELLURIDE, Colo. — Native cutthroat trout are returning to a corner of the San Juan Mountains as part of a conservation project by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
On Sept. 20, Parks and Wildlife biologists stocked more than 250 native cutthroat trout in Woods Lake southwest of Telluride. This location was selected because it will provide excellent quality cutthroat habitat: the area is isolated, the water is pristine and barriers protect the lake from non-native fish that live downstream. Once the population is established, the lake will provide the broodstock which will eventually assist in 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," said Dan Kowalski, an aquatic researcher with Parks and Wildlife in Montrose. "This is one of the few spots in southwest Colorado suitable for this type of restoration project and it will provide a great refuge for this important native fish. 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 reintroduced trout were captured from a small stream on the Uncompahgre Plateau earlier in the day and transported by horseback and then by truck to the lake. Wild fish from the small stream will also be spawned in the spring of 2013 so that larger numbers of fish can be introduced to Woods Lake and tributaries, Muddy Creek and Fall Creek, next summer.
"We'll do that to give us multiple age classes of fish and to provide good genetic diversity," Kowalski said.
Anglers can expect to start catching some cutthroat trout in the summer of 2013 but it will be a couple of years before there are large numbers of older-age fish to catch. Anglers are encouraged to release all fish they catch for the next couple of years to allow the population to grow. Fishing in the lake and streams above is restricted to artificial flies and lures only.
Cutthroat trout have been eliminated from many rivers and streams in western Colorado due to habitat loss, water quality impacts and the introduction of non-native. The native fish, which has been petitioned for listing as an endangered species, can now be found in only about 14 percent of its historic range in the Rocky Mountain West. This reintroduction project is an effort to restore the native trout to its former habitat, expand the fish’s range and prevent the need for an endangered species listing.
"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.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife worked cooperatively with the U.S. Forest Service during the last two summers to remove the non-native fish from Woods Lake and the tributaries.
Elsewhere in southwest Colorado — and only about 20 miles as the crow flies southeast of Woods Lake — another cutthroat restoration project is ongoing in the upper Hermosa Creek drainage near the Purgatory ski resort in San Juan County. When that project is completed in about five years, more than 20 miles of Hermosa Creek and feeder streams will be home to native cutthroats.
"Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been working on native trout restoration throughout the state for nearly 30 years and our work will continue," said John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for the southwest region. "This is truly a long-term effort."
To learn more about efforts by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to restore native trout, see:http://wildlife.state.co.us/Research/Aquatic/CutthroatTrout/Pages/CutthroatTrout.aspx.