Fourteen greenback cutthroat trout on Thursday splashed into a new home, a 300-gallon Plexiglas aquarium lined with river rocks and accented with driftwood, at Bear Creek Nature Center.
The fish might consider it an upgrade from the sterile, round tanks they previously occupied at the Leadville National Fish Hatchery, said Cory Noble of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which partnered with the nature center to create the display for Colorado’s rare and threatened state fish.
“I don’t know what fish think. But if I were a fish, I would rather be here than in the hatchery,” said Noble, one of two aquatic biologists who helped deliver the fish to the nature center, making it one of the few places where people can see the fish in captivity.
The species, once believed to be extinct, is listed as threatened by the U.S. Parks and Wildlife. In 2012, researchers found the only genetically pure population of greenback cutthroat trout resided in Bear Creek, not far from where El Paso County’s nature center sits along the banks.
The nature center’s scaly new residents, some of which are now too old to reproduce, were hauled to Colorado Springs in a 70-gallon tank in the bed of a pickup and carried to the new enclosure with nets and 5-gallon buckets.
Parks and Wildlife helped the nature center get a permit from the federal government to keep them in captivity for educational purposes.
“This is a good spot for us to take them,” said Josh Nehring, a senior aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “They can live out their lives and educate people.”
The 14 fish are the progeny of fish that wildlife specialists previously took from a few miles upstream in Bear Creek, where a roughly three-mile span is estimated to be home to about 700 to 1,000 adult greenback cutthroat trout,
The variety of trout isn’t native to the creek, however; research showed that former prospector and homesteader Joseph C. Jones, for whom Jones Park is named, introduced the trout into Bear Creek. With the help of hatcheries, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is working to repopulate the fish in its native waters, the South Platte River drainage, and waterways elsewhere in the state.
Since the trout were discovered in Bear Creek, there have been efforts to reroute trails in the creek watershed so that that human activity doesn’t put the fish at risk.
Erosion can be particularly harmful, said Noble. When sediment from roadways or trails washes into the creek, it can fill the pool habitat that the fish need to stay alive through the winter.
“Our goal is to connect people to their resources and inspire them to be stewards,” said nature center Supervisor Mary Jo Lewis. “This story has a lot of stewardship woven into it — people figuring out practices that we’ve done that don’t work well for sensitive species like this, and then figuring out how we can do better in working to create more sustainable practices.”
The new exhibit is part of a $250,000 nature center renovation that’s expected to be completed by the end of the year, said Todd Marts, manager of the county’s Recreation and Cultural Services Division. Donations accounted for about $100,000, and the rest came from a measure that voters approved in 2014, allowing the county to spend more than $2 million in excess revenue on parks and recreation improvements, Marts said.
When the upgrades are completed, there will also be three interactive exhibits that offer information about types of local habitat, including riparian and shrubland areas.
The nature center’s observation bee hive, a crowd favorite, still allows visitors to see thousands of honeybees in action.
“We’re going to stop here with live exhibits and leave the rest of the animals outside,” Marts said.