Colorado Officials Confirm Formerly Extinct State Fish Is Reproducing in the Wild

by Caitlin Berard
(Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The greenback cutthroat trout dates back to the last ice age, when its ancestors migrated to the Yellowstone river basin, giving rise to the new species. Like many fish, mining, farming, overfishing, and hybridization contributed to a steady decline in population until eventually, the greenback was presumed extinct in 1937.

Two decades later, however, multiple wild populations were discovered in the South Platte and Arkansas basins. This sparked aggressive conservation efforts to downgrade the species from endangered to threatened. The campaigns gained so much steam that in 1996, the greenback cutthroat trout was declared Colorado’s state fish.

Well, it took almost 70 years, but the Colorado state fish was finally confirmed to be mating in the wild once more. According to a recent news release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the fish are now breeding in Herman Gulch.

Though conservationists still have a long way to go, Colorado Governor Jared Polis considers this discovery a major win.

“We will continue to stock greenback trout from our hatcheries,” he said in the release. “[But] the fact that they are now successfully reproducing in the wild is exciting for the future of this species. This is a huge wildlife conservation success story and a testament to the world-class wildlife agency Coloradans have in Colorado Parks and Wildlife.”

Colorado Scientists Overjoyed by the Return of the State Fish

When scientists rediscovered the Colorado state fish, they developed a three-fold plan. First, they would do everything they could to protect the small area in which the fish thrived. Second, they developed a captive population in a hatchery. Once those populations matured, the third part of their plan would go into action.

To carry out this third leg of the plan, dedicated scientists carried bags of fish up steep mountain trails, depositing them in Herman Gulch. It was difficult and tedious. But knowing that their efforts didn’t go to waste, they have absolutely no regrets.

“Our team of field technicians literally high-fived right there in the stream when we captured that first fry that was spawned this year,” said Boyd Wright, an aquatic biologist who led the team.

A “fry” is a baby fish, and seeing one in the water was huge for scientists. It acted as the confirmation they needed that Colorado’s state fish were indeed mating.

“When moments later we captured a one-year-old fish produced in 2021, we were truly beside ourselves,” he said. “After many years of hard work and dedication, it is extremely satisfying to see our efforts paying off.”

Though it’s undeniably a thrilling accomplishment, scientists also warned they’re nowhere near finished. “This is just the start,” cautioned hatchery manager Bryan Johnson. “We need more. We’ve only got a few places where we have greenbacks on the landscape. But it’s awesome to see natural reproduction in Herman Gulch.”