SALIDA, Colo. (CBS4) — When you hold ‘hope’ in your hands, you wear gloves. You dress in several layers. And, occasionally, you take a break and stand by the heater.
Hope, in this case, is 20,000 baby rainbow trout. They are each about three inches long, lively, and slippery.
Last month, staff from Colorado Parks and Wildlife joined volunteers from Trout Unlimited over the course of four days at the Mount Ouray hatchery in Salida. They snipped the pelvic fins of all 20,000 young Gunnison rainbows – one fish at a time – in chilly winter temperatures. The procedure, performed while the fish were mildly sedated, will allow researchers to later track them.
They will be released this summer into the Arkansas River and other Colorado waterways in an effort to re-establish the iconic breed.
These unique trout are the spawn of wild rainbows from the Gunnison River that have somehow resisted the deadly outbreak of whirling disease which decimated Colorado’s rainbow trout population since the 1980’s.
If they survive or, better yet, thrive, the Gunnison rainbows promise to become “a huge wildlife conservation victory,” according to the state’s wildlife office.
“CPW has been trying to create a wild reproducing population of rainbow trout in the Arkansas and other major Colorado Rivers for decades,” said Josh Nehring, senior aquatic biologist in the Southeast Region. “There have been several obstacles in the Arkansas River including competition with brown trout, river flows and whirling disease, which is present in the river. These Gunnison River rainbows have shown resistance to the disease. This would be a big breakthrough if this project succeeds.”
The effort included spending more than $13 million to clean up infected hatcheries and convert them to spring- and well-water rather than surface sources.
CPW biologists plan to transfer the fish to their river environments in the next few weeks. In October, the biologists will survey the Arkansas population and measure their success rate.