Colorado: Forest Service takes step toward protecting threatened greenback cutthroat trout in Bear Creek

A greenback cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Agency settles lawsuit, agrees to ban motorized use on trails in Bear Creek watershed

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Colorado’s only population of native greenback cutthroat trout got a measure of protection this week, as the U.S. Forest Service agreed to ban motorized use on several trails near Bear Creek to protect the small stream near Colorado Springs from sediment.

Colorado biologists recently identified the Bear Creek population as the only remaining genetically pure strain of the greenback cutthroats. The settlement came a few months after the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit to protect the fish, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Native cutthroats in Colorado declined because of  pollution, overfishing and stocking of native and non-native species of trout.

“We’re so glad the Forest Service agreed to do the right thing and protect the only place in the world where greenback cutthroat trout still live in the wild,” said attorney Tim Ream. “This endangered fish has been hanging on by a thread for decades. The last thing it needs is motorcycles tearing through its only home and filling the creek with sediment.”

A DNA study earlier this year determined that Bear Creek hosted the last pure and wild population of the fish. For years, though, off-road vehicles have been severely eroding Bear Creek Canyon’s steep slopes. The runoff harms water quality and is filling in deep pools that the fish use to hide from predators and survive winters and droughts.

Under the terms of the agreement filed in federal court, the Forest Service is required to prohibit off-road vehicles on nearly all of the five trails that run through the Bear Creek watershed. Before any part of those closed trails can be reopened, the Forest Service will have to consult, as required by the Endangered Species Act, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that trail use would not harm the threatened fish.

The U.S. Forest Service will prohibit motorized use on several trails in the Bear Creek drainage, near Colorado Springs, to protect native greenback cutthroat trout.

Along with future, as-yet undetermined steps to recover cutthroat trout, protecting Bear Creek is the critical first step to save the fish, Ream said.

Next steps to protect greenback cutthroat could include establishing a second population in a similar stream. That would help protect the population from a catastrophic event like a wildfire that could wipe out all the fish in one swoop, said biologist Andrew Todd, who has studied cutthroat all around Colorado.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is also breeding greenback cutthroats in an aquatic lab. In the long run, those fish could be used to establish popuations in other streams.

“It goes to show how decimated cutthroat trout have been … cutthroat trout and the Rocky Mountains should never be separated from each other … the pure unhybridized genes must be protected,” Ream said.

“I am so happy that greenback cutthroat trout are finally getting the respect they deserve,” said Jack Hunter, a longtime Colorado Springs resident and advocate for greenback. “This was a known problem for the trout for years, but thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity, Bear Creek is finally getting real protection.”

The Forest Service also plans to complete a comprehensive assessment of the watershed that could result in additional changes to protect the fragile stream. While the settlement agreement does not include the Colorado Springs Utility, closure of the Forest Service trails in Bear Creek effectively closes all access by motorcycles to the Jones Park area. Access by hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders is not affected by the agreement.

“This is a tremendous victory for the greenback cutthroat trout and the state of Colorado,” said Ream. “With today’s agreement, the state fish has a shot at survival.”


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