SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Native cutthroat trout are returning to a corner of the San Juan Mountains as part of a conservation project by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Biologists with the agency recently stocked more than 250 native cutthroat trout in Woods Lake southwest of Telluride.
Woods Lake 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 brood stock that eventually will 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,” 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 reintroduced trout were captured from a small stream on the Uncompahgre Plateau, then transported the same day by horseback and then by truck to the lake. Wild fish from the small stream also will be spawned next spring so that larger numbers of fish can be introduced to Woods Lake and its tributary streams, 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.
Fishermen can expect to start catching some cutthroat trout next summer, 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 it is restricted to artificial flies and lures only.
Cutthroat trout have been eliminated from many rivers and streams in western Colorado because of habitat loss, water quality impacts and introduction of non-native fish.
The native fish, which has been petitioned for listing as an endangered species, now can 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 non-native fish from Woods Lake and its tributaries.
Another cutthroat restoration project is ongoing in the upper Hermosa Creek drainage near Durango Mountain Resort. 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.”