Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout – A Model For Fisheries Conservation

In this the 50th anniversary year of the Endangered Species Act, it is worth noting that Rio Grande cutthroat a decade ago were considered for listing—and potential restricted angling.

In this the 50th anniversary year of the Endangered Species Act, it is worth noting that Rio Grande cutthroat a decade ago were considered for listing—and potential restricted angling. Thanks to fishery management endeavors already underway, that didn’t happen. A conservation strategy backed with much data guides work today and into the future.

Anglers are the archetypal optimists and there is much to look forward to in Colorado and New Mexico if you like to catch Rio Grande cutthroat trout.  That’s thanks to conservation endeavors by biologists with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and their diligent work funded by federal excise taxes paid by tackle manufacturers. Sport Fish Restoration (Dingell-Johnson) dollars partly pay the way to conserve this gem with fins with a natural distribution that lies over the artificial state line in the upper Rio Grande and Canadian River drainages. 

This cutthroat by all accounts is among the prettiest of fishes. Their colors reflect the high-elevation southern Rocky Mountain forests and valleys where they dwell:  the olive of conifer needles. The cream of a faded alder leaf. The smudge of carmine on the cheek and throat and a belly that carries the flush of crimson like the swollen rose hips or ripe raspberries that grow along cutthroat creeks when the trout have procreation in mind. Their spotting varies a bit from place to place, like freshly milled pepper flakes in the upper Rio Grande watershed of Colorado to large peppercorns in the upper Pecos River in New Mexico. In most all cases, the black spots are concentrated toward the tail. 

They are really something to behold.

A mid-afternoon shadow cannot hide New Mexico Dept of Game and Fish biologist Tucker Brauers smile as he releases a hefty Rio Grande cutthroat in a southern New Mexico creek. Photo Bryan Bakevich NMDGF

They caught the attention of a Spanish explorer. Rio Grande cutthroat trout hold the distinction of being the first trout documented in the New World. In 1541, the Coronado Entrada tarried near Pecos Pueblo 15 miles from today’s Santa Fe where chronicler Pedro Castañeda noted truchas swimming in a Pecos River tributary. Trucha is Spanish for trout, but also implies a particular persona of alertness.  El esta bien trucha. One can imagine the impression made in the encounter with America’s first trout, a foot-long fish finning in the tail of a crystal glide, dashing upstream to the cover of a fallen tree at the sight of the European. 

Much has changed in the intervening 482 years. The creek flowing into the Pecos River where the first trout was seen is now a sandy arroyo. Habitat loss, competition with non-native fishes that hybridize with the native cutthroat or outcompete it for the limited spaces and food in streams, they all caused the Rio Grande cutthroat trout to retreat to headwater streams in the southern Rockies.  And there they persist, and due to conservation work for the last few decades, their populations expand, their numbers are growing by design—by coordinated endeavors between the two states, sharing data and expertise and certainly a thirst for the work.

A recent public event in northern New Mexico near the state line in upper Costilla Creek must have been thirst-quenching. New Mexico Game and Fish celebrated the restoration of 120 miles of stream now occupied by Rio Grande cutthroat.

Trees living and dead make habitat for Rio Grande cutthroat. An angler pays out a bow cast in a tunnel of alders. Craig Springer photo

Costilla Creek heads in Colorado and flows partly through Vermejo Park Ranch whose managers have taken genuine interests themselves in conserving Rio Grande cutthroats.  Costilla Creek and its tributaries vein over the 160-square-mile Valle Vidal—undeniably, a valley brimming with life—where the native trout share the soft immensity of the high-elevation vale with elk and deer, bear and mountain lion, and pronghorn and dusky grouse. What’s more, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Native Aquatic Species Hatchery in Alamosa supplied the New Mexico biologists with Rio Grande chub and Rio Grande sucker—a colorful fish in its own right—that now co-occur with the native trout as Castañeda probably observed himself in the upper Pecos.  Sport Fish Restoration dollars paid for substantial concrete barriers to keep downstream non-native fishes at bay; they paid for staff time, the data analysis, the report writing, and for all the gear and accoutrements to ready the watershed to receive native fishes over a great span of time. The excise taxes pay for the operation of Seven Springs Hatchery near Los Alamos, New Mexico where the culturists wade deep in managing Rio Grande cutthroat brood stocks at the genetic level to ensure purity of the populations that go back out into the wild.

“The Costilla project started many years ago and is really quite valuable for Rio Grande cutthroat conservation,” said Kirk Patten, Chief of Fisheries for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.  “It’s big, the waters are interconnected, and that’s important for robust genetics of wild native trout. And it’s open to fishing.”

John Alves, a Senior Aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife said the Costilla project was quite gratifying to see it all come to fruition. Alves worked early in the project on the Colorado side going back decades.  He was on the front edge, gathering data on the distribution and composition of Colorado’s Rio Grande cutthroats in the 1990s. Forty-three streams and many lakes harbor native Rio Grande cutthroat trout in southern Colorado, where mountain snowmelt births the Rio Grande.

Biologist Estevan Vigil Colorado Parks and Wildlife oversees cutthroat trout conservation in the San Luis Valley. He is holding a Rio Grande cutthroat brood fish from Haypress Lake. CPW photo

Alves and his Parks and Wildlife colleagues have their own successes to tout. Medano Creek on the east side the Great Sand Dunes National Monument near Alamosa has a restored population of Rio Grande cutthroat trout, the result of much sweat equity, where anglers can enjoy catching colorful trout in a most pristine setting. It only takes four-wheel-drive to get to it. Rio Grande cutthroat trout were restored to three and half miles of the adjacent upper Sand Creek in 2020. Restoration of the lower section of Sand Creek is up next for Alves and his colleagues.

Colorado’s state fish hatcheries turn out good numbers of Rio Grande cutthroat trout, operations again funded in part by Sport Fish Restoration dollars. In 2022, 59,000 Rio Grandes went into 26 Colorado waters.

Native trout such as Rio Grandes have a certain cache about them. Forty percent of New Mexico’s nearly 280,000 licensed anglers declared cutthroat among their preferred cold-water quarry last year.

“A growing number of anglers seek native trout, they seek opportunity and adventure,” said Patten.  “Sport Fish Restoration funding is critical to our mission—our role of conserving a natural heritage and preventing restrictions on fishing. Conservation also sustains an industry.”

To learn more about Sport Fish Restoration, visit Partner with a Payer.

–Craig Springer, USFWS – Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration