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Breaking News: What We Thought Were "Greenback" Cutthroats Weren't Greenback Cutthroats At All

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September 25, 2012

Breaking News: What We Thought Were "Greenback" Cutthroats Weren't Greenback Cutthroats At All

By Kirk Deeter

After years of speculation and concern, fish biologists (and anglers) who have endeavored for decades to restore the native greenback cutthroat trout--Colorado's state fish, native to the South Platte River drainage--have learned the truth about the status of this iconic species. I'll start with the bad news.

All of those "greenback" cutthroats some of us have been catching in remote wilderness streams and lakes east of the Continental Divide aren't greenbacks after all. Based on the best available genetic science at the time, we thought they were, but they're not. They're actually either Colorado River strain cutthroats, which are native to the West Slope, or a more nebulous strain scientists are calling "lineage GB." I'll spare you the genetic details, but we now know for certain that they are not native to the rivers east of the Continental Divide.

But there's good news, too. Scientists have confirmed the existence of a very small population of real, living greenback cutthroat trout in Bear Creek, which is a tiny part of the Arkansas River drainage near Colorado Springs. Ironically, those South Platte River fish were transplanted to Bear Creek over 100 years ago. As far as we know, this population of several hundred fish represents the only true, wild greenbacks on the planet. And they will save the greenbacks from extinction.

All of this information was confirmed yesterday with the release of results of a fascinating study by Dr. Jessica Metcalf (University of Colorado) and her team of colleagues. What they did was compare DNA samples of fish from Bear Creek and throughout Colorado with DNA samples of greenbacks that had been caught in the South Platte more than a century ago, preserved in alcohol, and kept in museums. Using incredibly sensitive genetic technology, they were able to match the historic greenback with this small population in Bear Creek. This is important, because the greenback, which was actually declared extinct in the 1930s, then thought to be "rediscovered" in 1953, has actually been on the verge of extinction all along. Now that the "real fish" has been identified, the potential to restore the true species can move ahead.

Okay, so you might wonder a few things. For starters, why should the average angler care? Trout have been shipped and stocked from one place to another for more than a century. It is what it is, right? I'm sorry, but I think if we have an opportunity to keep a native species in its native range for future generations, we should do it. Granted, our forefathers probably thought they were doing us a favor by shipping rainbow trout east, and brook trout west, but they didn't have the understanding of how that would impact native fish.

Isn't it a bummer that so much time and effort has been poured into restoring greenbacks that aren't true greenbacks? In some ways, sure. But again, those efforts were all based on the best science available. I would also argue that all that stream restoration work has served to increase angler awareness and appreciation of native species throughout the country. And the "infrastructure" is in many places that can support future efforts to restore greenbacks in Colorado.

Lastly, that little stretch of Bear Creek is in an area that sees many recreational uses, including off-road-vehicles. It's a fragile area that is now clearly a hundred times more important than it might have seemed even a few days ago. I think these findings could lead to more consensus and cooperation among various interest groups to save the greenbacks.

I look at the glass being far more than half full. Thank goodness for the science and the efforts it took to identify the needle in the genetic haystack, and thank goodness there are real, swimming greenbacks around today, and we know where they are. It's going to take more effort, but the opportunities to save this native species have never been greater.

For more details on the research project including a copy of the study, please visit the University of Colorado News page. For more information on the Greenback Cutthroat Trout Recovery Team, click here. And to learn more about cutthroat conservation and research, click here

Comments (17)

Top Rated
All Comments
from buckhunter wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

This is great news. Anytime science gives a species a chance, it's a victory for all those who support groups such as Trout Unlimited.

I just hope Bear Creek is very well protected...

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from clinchknot wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

Who should care? The govt agencies, and "other" agencies get all queezie about protecting a strain at the expense of another strain, then find out they've been using fuzzy science all along, and aren't right in the first place. What they are right on as far as they are concerned, is they create jobs for themselves. Protect spawning fish from habitat degredation, and over harvesting, and move on.

-4 Good Comment? | | Report
from upacreek333 wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

This revelation makes the native trout in Bear Creek about 1,000 times more important that originally thought. Keeping a connection to Colorado's state fish, and its native trout heritage is absolutely vital--I'm glad TU working with the ORV crowd to protect this creek and the priceless fish that live in it.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dietmar Grimm wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

To me this just highlights the importance of all the habitat restoration work being done on our favorite streams (including through the greenback efforts). It'll help greenbacks (in their native habitat), but restoration benefits all species and fishing wherever it occurs. Over time, we'll continue to improve science and get the species right, but it is also a no-brainer to support folks who are bringing streams back to their true physical form -- they are not only more beautiful, but much more productive and fun fisheries.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Basser51 wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

Fisheries biologists utilize the best science available to them at the time. There is no possible way to tell whether a fish is a pure strain individual or whether it is a hybrid fish just by looking at it. Fisheries biologists use the best available data at hand, and WE do not use "fuzzy science". Genetic techniques are getting better and better at being able to distinguish sub-species, and strains of fish. They should close Bear Creek to off-road vehicles, and scale back some of the recreation activities until they can determine if the Bear Creek population is stable. I am glad that they were able to bring light to this issue, and we now know even more about these beautiful trout.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Koldkut wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

I know folks who have hiked there, those no-fishing signs are probably going to be disregarded by those who know where this is. I have caught a fish from a feeder of those same streams before the no-fishing signs went up, I'll have to go back and review those pics.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from clinchknot wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

Next thing we hear will be these biologists renaming carp, and including them into the trout family.

-3 Good Comment? | | Report
from Rhythm Rider wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

Clearly, the headwaters of Bear Creek would be a great place to put a gold and copper mine.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Brian Phipps wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

anytime the bios can do their best to save a species is good in my books

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from redfishunter wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

I seem to remember Chad Love writing an article about how he wanted to catch all of the different types of Cutthroat Trout, and he was so proud he finally caught a greenback. Well Chad, apparently you failed.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Basser51 wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

I am quite confident that nothing of that sort would happen. Biologists/scientists at the very least admit when they are wrong, we don't know everything and don't make claims that we do know everything.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from clinchknot wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

Basser51
They do on my SF of the Snake every year regarding the native cutthroats. Work projects after work projects all in the name of providing work under the threat the river will be shutdown by the environmentalists if you don't allow their work projects.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Basser51 wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

Clinchknot
I have not looked into the snake river area, but if that is what is going on then I understand what you're frustrated about. From my experience the feds and state agencies have been pretty good about working on a project and then letting the environment take over. Then simply conducting monitoring surveys at later dates. I hope they get things straightened out on the Snake river.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Basser51 wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

Clinchknot
I have not looked into the snake river area, but if that is what is going on then I understand what you're frustrated about. From my experience the feds and state agencies have been pretty good about working on a project and then letting the environment take over. Then simply conducting monitoring surveys at later dates. I hope they get things straightened out on the Snake river.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from clinchknot wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

Basser,
Here's the deal. And another fellow in the Flyshop backed up my feelings....make work projects. The liberal environmentalists have applied, numerous times to shut down the entire SF of the Snake because of low native Cutthroat numbers, or declining numbers. They want the rainbows killed. But the NF is a rainbow fishery, and it connects with the SF. They have successfully created fish weirs on some tribs up high in the SF system where cutthroat spawn eliminating the rainbows, and protecting the genetic integrity. But, in conversation with the biologists they say they continue to work the SF because there are some main river spawners. I know cutthroat coming from the WestCoast and fishing them in the salt, and in the river systems. They have to have far reaching tribs to get away with competing species. They are basically wimps that get driven away. So my point is...forget the main river spawners, do your job on the tribs, and forget it not electro-shocking every year on the main river etc. And this is oll in the name of....we do it, or the liberals will shut your river down. BS. They are both on the same side of the fence!

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Austin James Garner wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

the fake cutt looks like a rio grande cutt.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from stringer03 wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

Okay, I read an article like this right after I read a message blog with someone touting how a hatchery has created s new hybrid that will will grow really big, really fast and possibly set records. I feel perhaps we should figure out what we want, native and natural or something we've created that could possibly out compete the native species we prize. Certainly not my full opinion on the subject but food for thought and something that weights heavily on my mind as an avid angler.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from buckhunter wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

This is great news. Anytime science gives a species a chance, it's a victory for all those who support groups such as Trout Unlimited.

I just hope Bear Creek is very well protected...

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from upacreek333 wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

This revelation makes the native trout in Bear Creek about 1,000 times more important that originally thought. Keeping a connection to Colorado's state fish, and its native trout heritage is absolutely vital--I'm glad TU working with the ORV crowd to protect this creek and the priceless fish that live in it.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dietmar Grimm wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

To me this just highlights the importance of all the habitat restoration work being done on our favorite streams (including through the greenback efforts). It'll help greenbacks (in their native habitat), but restoration benefits all species and fishing wherever it occurs. Over time, we'll continue to improve science and get the species right, but it is also a no-brainer to support folks who are bringing streams back to their true physical form -- they are not only more beautiful, but much more productive and fun fisheries.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Rhythm Rider wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

Clearly, the headwaters of Bear Creek would be a great place to put a gold and copper mine.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Brian Phipps wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

anytime the bios can do their best to save a species is good in my books

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Basser51 wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

I am quite confident that nothing of that sort would happen. Biologists/scientists at the very least admit when they are wrong, we don't know everything and don't make claims that we do know everything.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Basser51 wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

Fisheries biologists utilize the best science available to them at the time. There is no possible way to tell whether a fish is a pure strain individual or whether it is a hybrid fish just by looking at it. Fisheries biologists use the best available data at hand, and WE do not use "fuzzy science". Genetic techniques are getting better and better at being able to distinguish sub-species, and strains of fish. They should close Bear Creek to off-road vehicles, and scale back some of the recreation activities until they can determine if the Bear Creek population is stable. I am glad that they were able to bring light to this issue, and we now know even more about these beautiful trout.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Koldkut wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

I know folks who have hiked there, those no-fishing signs are probably going to be disregarded by those who know where this is. I have caught a fish from a feeder of those same streams before the no-fishing signs went up, I'll have to go back and review those pics.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from redfishunter wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

I seem to remember Chad Love writing an article about how he wanted to catch all of the different types of Cutthroat Trout, and he was so proud he finally caught a greenback. Well Chad, apparently you failed.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from clinchknot wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

Basser51
They do on my SF of the Snake every year regarding the native cutthroats. Work projects after work projects all in the name of providing work under the threat the river will be shutdown by the environmentalists if you don't allow their work projects.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Basser51 wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

Clinchknot
I have not looked into the snake river area, but if that is what is going on then I understand what you're frustrated about. From my experience the feds and state agencies have been pretty good about working on a project and then letting the environment take over. Then simply conducting monitoring surveys at later dates. I hope they get things straightened out on the Snake river.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Basser51 wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

Clinchknot
I have not looked into the snake river area, but if that is what is going on then I understand what you're frustrated about. From my experience the feds and state agencies have been pretty good about working on a project and then letting the environment take over. Then simply conducting monitoring surveys at later dates. I hope they get things straightened out on the Snake river.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from clinchknot wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

Basser,
Here's the deal. And another fellow in the Flyshop backed up my feelings....make work projects. The liberal environmentalists have applied, numerous times to shut down the entire SF of the Snake because of low native Cutthroat numbers, or declining numbers. They want the rainbows killed. But the NF is a rainbow fishery, and it connects with the SF. They have successfully created fish weirs on some tribs up high in the SF system where cutthroat spawn eliminating the rainbows, and protecting the genetic integrity. But, in conversation with the biologists they say they continue to work the SF because there are some main river spawners. I know cutthroat coming from the WestCoast and fishing them in the salt, and in the river systems. They have to have far reaching tribs to get away with competing species. They are basically wimps that get driven away. So my point is...forget the main river spawners, do your job on the tribs, and forget it not electro-shocking every year on the main river etc. And this is oll in the name of....we do it, or the liberals will shut your river down. BS. They are both on the same side of the fence!

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Austin James Garner wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

the fake cutt looks like a rio grande cutt.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from stringer03 wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

Okay, I read an article like this right after I read a message blog with someone touting how a hatchery has created s new hybrid that will will grow really big, really fast and possibly set records. I feel perhaps we should figure out what we want, native and natural or something we've created that could possibly out compete the native species we prize. Certainly not my full opinion on the subject but food for thought and something that weights heavily on my mind as an avid angler.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from clinchknot wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

Next thing we hear will be these biologists renaming carp, and including them into the trout family.

-3 Good Comment? | | Report
from clinchknot wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

Who should care? The govt agencies, and "other" agencies get all queezie about protecting a strain at the expense of another strain, then find out they've been using fuzzy science all along, and aren't right in the first place. What they are right on as far as they are concerned, is they create jobs for themselves. Protect spawning fish from habitat degredation, and over harvesting, and move on.

-4 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

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