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Heath Bollock: Guest opinion

Heath Bollock
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

A fiery red-orange and sometimes crimson red, nearly blood-red: Slashes and blotches of this color line the throat, gills, belly and fins. Golden metallic to deep blue and purple hues glisten, distinguishable spots that pull together this abstract creation, a native trout intended for our Western landscape.

From the high-desert region of 5,000 feet to the alpine meadows closest to the Continental Divide at 11,000 feet, here are a few secret locations nearly eluding the impact of 19th-century European conquering and development of the Western United States. These few secret locations harbor the remains of a genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout, last seen in their totality by free-roaming American Indians.

American Indians did not need to exploit their land, by comparison with us, and they were efficient with their resources. Most were nomadic and made use of a summer and winter range, much like animal migration. European exploitation commanded vast resources, often unreplenished, for their means were of a higher value than what nature could offer. Deer, elk, buffalo and various fish became the table fare for thousands of settlers, miners and cattlemen. The delicate balance needed to preserve the Western landscape would not be passed on by the natives. Some things were repaired and restored over time, but the cutthroat trout never recovered from this onslaught of humanity.

Rather than restocking native trout, our state and federal governments began a session of raising and stocking multiple non-native trout species: rainbow trout, brook trout and brown trout. It has been said that the non-native trout are more voracious and contentious and better survive the needs of our sporting fishermen. It has been said by scientific research that non-native trout are stronger and reproductively superior; but more important we should realize that non-native trout are sought by fishermen who (when combined with hunters) constitute 30 percent, or $9.5 billion, of Colorado’s annual revenue through license fees and accommodations.

In the past 30 years or more our fish hatcheries in Colorado have been subject to supplying various cutthroat trout: Many have not qualified genetically to sustain wild populations. With the advent and improvement of DNA-based science, biologists have started to isolate genetically pure cutthroat trout so as to begin preservation and continuation of the species.

Scientific data is known to be skewed or inaccurate, and much of the information that is viable has been repetitively published and referenced. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has yet to publish its most recent assessment in form of a census, including DNA testing, and it has been working on this census for five years. Missing their deadline by a year and a half, the DOW’s census was to be published in the fall of 2010. The DOW is mute on the subject and hence controls public perspective and knowledge. The division is clearly concerned with damaging its reputation, for it is responsible for stocking so many non-native trout that it has led to the decline of the cutthroat trout. The majority of all hatchery-stocked cutthroat trout is inferior.

Raised in the Roaring Fork Valley, the native cutthroat trout is nearly at my back doorstep. Raised an outdoorsman and once employed as a professional fly fisherman, I took it for granted that we will always catch cutthroat trout, but once I did some research I soon realized that with only 1 percent genetically pure cutthroat trout remaining, I probably had never caught a pure specimen until invited on a special trip into the backcountry during the summer of 2009. Returning from that trip, my friend shared his knowledge, and my own research reaffirmed any suspicions and/or mystery surrounding the condition of the species.

A trained film student, photographer and writer, I decided to seek justice for the native Colorado River cutthroat trout. My research led me to the remaining pure trout in isolated streams, and I began traveling, fly-fishing and videoing a fish so remote and so unique that I was sure that I had never crossed paths with this pure native in any fly-fishing excursions before.

I vowed personally to document and the fish and work to rescue it from the brink. What transpired was only breathtaking.

Before my video documentation of the species was finished, I had contacted the DOW and the U.S. Forest Service, and pledged to partner and help with saving the last 1 percent. Not surprisingly, federal and state government officials became protective and skeptical of my pursuit, even though I thought we were all on the same page. It would not be long after my first interviews that I would be barred access for further interviews and that I would not be allowed to work with the Forest Service or Colorado DOW.

Remarkably, before my contact with the government was severed, I attended a meeting with government biologists from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico at an annual meeting on the subject and found some interesting information: The Colorado River cutthroat trout might not be a distinct sub-species and very well could be the same fish as the greenback cutthroat trout. Keep in mind that the DNA testing of the Colorado River cutthroat trout had not yet been perfected in the fall of 2009, so any information published by the state or federal government could be inaccurate until we hear about the DNA of this threatened native trout. Small populations remain in New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the greatest populations, though minimal, remain west of the Continental Divide in western Colorado.

My documentary “Cutthroat and Company” contains four of the remaining streams and populations – the locations of which are undisclosed in order to protect the remaining genetically pure cutthroat – and is online at http://www.backroadmedia.net. A nonprofit is forming in 2012 to follow the government’s progress on saving the species. Those interested can find us at http://www.cuttyalliance.org and also follow us on Facebook at the Cutty Alliance. The Cutty Alliance is holding its first public meeting on March 10 at Dos Gringos in Carbondale.


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