By Cara Pallone, KOTO
On a recent sunny morning at Woods Lake, a high-alpine haven just west of Telluride, some 700 or so native Colorado River cutthroat trout were released into the pristine water.
This is where the eggs were fertilized last spring after being collected from another stream west of Montrose. They were reared at a hatchery in Rifle Falls, and developed into the healthy juvenile trout they are today: tiny but fierce.
As they are dropped into the cold lake, they disperse quickly, looking for the best places to hide.
Sound of release…splashing… “I think that’s all of them. Looks like they’re doing pretty well. Trying to find some nice places to hide.”
That’s Eric Gardunio, a Montrose-based aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Earlier that morning, the fish were loaded into two giant plastic bags, about 300 in each. The bags were filled with ice cubes, pumped full of oxygen and stored in a cooler for the journey. Once at Woods Lake, Gardunio heads off with his fish in a backpack, bushwhacking his way around the lake, until he locates the perfect spot to release them. Within moments, they are gone.
“It’s kind of funny after the months of work that goes into getting these fish to this point and you come here and pour them into the lake and hope you see them in three or four years.”
But, these aren’t just any fish. In the parking lot, before the release, curious passersby stop by the CPW truck to catch a glimpse of the fish as they are unloaded from the cooler and receive a brief lesson from CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski.
“These are the fish that were here before the Europeans arrived. And we’re reclaiming this lake and we’re getting the native fish started again at areas across Colorado. So these aren’t just any fish. They’re special.”
That’s right. They are native Colorado River cutthroat trout, listed on CPW’s threatened and endangered species list, and the state agency is trying to build a self-sustaining population of this species at Woods Lake so that they can periodically be introduced to other trout fisheries in the region. Gardunio explains:
“They’ve struggled because of things like competition with non-native fish, habitat degradation, water use, they can also hybridize with things like rainbow trout, so there’s a lot of things that have really sort of hurt these native cutthroat over the last 100 or 150 years so their range is vastly diminished from what it was. We’re trying to restore as many of these streams as we can.”
Woods Lake is one of the cornerstones of the restoration work in Colorado’s southwest region because its clean mountain water and ecosystem yields much bigger fish than other streams in the area and therefore, biologists are able to collect many more eggs. For example, in the stream where these very fish originated, they would only likely grow to be about 10 inches.
“Whereas in here, this lake is filled with a whole bunch of food, really productive lake, they grow really well. We’ve seen fish close to 5 lbs. We had one this spring that had about 3,000 eggs.”
The Woods Lake Colorado River cutthroat restoration project has been a year’s long effort, and actually was first introduced as an idea in the 80s. Much has had to happen since then, including the controversial removal of non-native brook trout through chemical reclamation.
“Non-native brook trout can just wipe cutthroat trout out. Cutthroats tend to not be able to persist if there’s Brook Trout in a fishery. So Dan came in and did a chemical reclamation project to remove those brook trout from the streams and the lake with the idea that we could bring these cutthroat trout in here and have this be a source of eggs for future restoration projects in other areas.”
When Gardunio came on with CPW, it was his task to find the native cutthroat to put into Woods Lake.
“And we first started stocking it in 2013. Taken them a while to grow up and now they’re starting to spawn in these two tributaries, so the lake is starting to fuel itself from a population perspective. We’re just trying to help out with that by doing this spawning operation.”
Gardunio is accompanied on this day at Woods Lake by Wally Johnston, a hatchery technician at the Rifle Falls Hatchery. The hatchery works with biologists and researchers around the state who provide hatchery with fertilized eggs. Johnston and his team then hatch, rear and stock them.
The strategy for a high survival rate is power in numbers. Johnston says they try to overwhelm predators by releasing a large number of baby fish at once. And this batch, they have a fighting chance.
“Even though they’ve been reared in captivity and they’ve been fed. Their instinct is going to drive them to eat. And they will eat bugs. And when they get big enough, they will eat each other. You can’t put a hamburger in front of me and have it not get eaten, fish are the same way.”
While conservation, such as ensuring the survival of native species, is at the heart of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s mission, wildlife management is a concept that’s often overlooked and misunderstood.
Gardunio says projects like the native Colorado River cutthroat restoration program is important, because the species is a symbol of the region’s natural history.
“It’s valuable as a society to take care of our ecosystems and the land we live in. And I really feel like these cutthroat are a symbol of that when we can take care of what was here historically, that sort of represents a bigger picture of what a lot of people are trying to do to conserve natural resources in these ecosystems.”
For Western Slope Resources Reporting, I’m Cara Pallone.