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Efforts to save Greenback Cutthroat trout continue in Bear Creek 

click to enlarge A Greenback Cutthroat trout - BOB FALCONE
  • Bob Falcone
  • A Greenback Cutthroat trout
Wading through Bear Creek early one recent morning, two aquatic biologists with Colorado Parks and Wildlife look for the elusive, threatened greenback cutthroat trout. The goal of CPW biologists Josh Nehring, Cory Noble and a small support contingent, is to capture every mature trout they can find, harvest the eggs from the females and the sperm, or "milt", from the males, then transport them to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife hatchery in Leadville, where they can be bred and released into lakes and reservoirs around Colorado. Nehring and Noble's team found only a handful of mature trout this time, indicative of the low numbers that populate the creek.

click to enlarge CPW Intern Katelyn Behounek, Biologists Cory Noble and Josh Nehring , and District Wildlife Manager Cody Wigner hunting for Greenback Cutthroat trout in Bear Creek - BOB FALCONE
  • Bob Falcone
  • CPW Intern Katelyn Behounek, Biologists Cory Noble and Josh Nehring , and District Wildlife Manager Cody Wigner hunting for Greenback Cutthroat trout in Bear Creek


The greenback, a species found only in Colorado, was thought to be extinct, primarily due to the introduction of non-native fish into their habitat and other man-made causes like mining pollution and trail construction. In the 1950s, scientists discovered what they believed to be the greenback in the Arkansas and Platte river basins and started a breeding and conservation program. It wasn't until 2012, after using genetic testing, that researchers discovered that the trout from the breeding process were not actually greenback cutthroat trout.

The study revealed a small population of wild greenback populating the water of Bear Creek in Colorado Springs. The greenback is native to the South Platte, not Bear Creek where the fish were introduced by a homesteader in 1882.

Now, Jones Park, a beloved recreational area for hikers, cyclists and off-road enthusiasts, is the last known refuge of Colorado's state fish. The rediscovery of the trout sparked controversy amongst recreational and conservation groups, and a plan was developed to protect the fish by landowners in the area — originally Colorado Springs Utilities, the U.S. Forest Service and the city (with oversight from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for protecting the greenback), though El Paso County was later granted the Utilities land. The plan included closing one of the area's most popular cycling trails, Captain Jack's. Here's an excerpt from an Indy report late last year:

Colorado Springs Utilities and the U.S. Forest Service (which both owned land in Jones Park) met with groups representing recreationalists to try to decide what should be done ("Fifty Shades of Green," cover story, Oct. 3, 2012). Then an environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, threatened the Forest Service with a lawsuit. The group aimed to protect the greenback by having off-road motorcycles — which had enjoyed the area for years and helped maintain it — banned from the trail that crosses the creek.

The Forest Service folded immediately. Since then, only mountain bikers and hikers have hit Trail 667, also known as Upper Captain Jack's. In January 2015, Utilities, seeking to avoid any lawsuits or financial obligations, gave its share of Jones Park to El Paso County. Originally, the property was slated to be given to the National Forest Foundation, but the county stepped in, hoping local ownership would protect recreational access. Still, the county deal included a legal obligation to follow the recommendations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study that the Forest Service was already conducting.

That NEPA process was concerned with conserving Jones' Park's famous fish. Unfortunately, it concluded, doing so meant abolishing Jones' famous trail.

While some recreationalists worked closely with landowners to ensure protection of the fish while also offering trail access, plenty of others balked at the idea of being banned from a favorite spot due to the presence of a nonnative fish. Recognizing how important the area is to local users, the county and Forest Service created an alternative plan to re-route the famous trail so the impact on the trout's habitat would be minimized.

Today, the greenback cutthroat survives, even if in just small numbers, while the work to protect the fish continues. Not only is CPW and U.S. Fish and Wildlife working to breed more greenback cutthroat, CPW is also working to remove other non-native trout from lakes and reservoirs around Colorado so that the greenback cutthroat population can increase unimpeded.

Happy Trails!

Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor, business owner and author of Hiking Bob's Tips, Tricks and Trails, available via his website. He has lived in Colorado Springs for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: info@hikingbob.com.

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