The greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish, was declared extinct over 50 years ago. But last week officials found the first confirmation that the trout are once again reproducing in the wild.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife discovered that the trout are naturally reproducing in Herman Gulch in Summit County, according to a news release.
The discovery serves as evidence that the department’s intensive reintroduction program has succeeded in bringing the fish back from the brink of extinction.
The species was thought to be extinct in 1937 due to pollution from mining, fishing and competition for resources with other trout, according to the news release. But in 2012, Colorado Parks and Wildlife discovered a small population of greenback cutthroat trout in Bear Creek, on the southwest edge of Colorado Springs, likely descendants of fish brought for tourists to fish.
This triggered a multi-agency effort to protect the tiny stretch of water where the endangered fish were reproducing, according to the release.
Besides protecting the trout habitat, officials also developed a captive population in a hatchery. Starting in 2016, they began releasing young greenback cutthroat trout from these captive-born populations into the wild – including in Herman Gulch.
The Herman Gulch trout are the first to reach adulthood and start reproducing on their own, the release says. There are other captive-born fledgling populations in several other basin streams, but they aren’t old enough to reproduce.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis lauded the discovery as a conservation win.
“While we will continue to stock greenback trout from our hatcheries, the fact that they are now successfully reproducing in the wild is exciting for the future of this species,” he said in the release. “This is a huge wildlife conservation success story and a testament to the world-class wildlife agency Coloradans have in Colorado Parks and Wildlife.”
The biologists who carried bags of fish up steep mountain trails in hopes of saving the rare fish also expressed their excitement about the discovery.
“Our team of field technicians literally high-fived right there in the stream when we captured that first fry that was spawned this year,” Boyd Wright, an aquatic biologist who has led the reintroduction project, said in the release. The fry was proof that the captive-born fish were indeed breeding on their own. “When moments later we captured a one-year-old fish produced in 2021, we were truly beside ourselves.”
“After many years of hard work and dedication, it is extremely satisfying to see our efforts paying off,” he said.