Even if you live in the West and fishing isn’t your passion, it still seems likely you’ve heard of cutthroat trout, swimming throughout the waters of the West. The Colorado River cutthroat trout is one of three subspecies of cutthroat trout and is native only to the Green and Colorado River basins in the Western United States. This small but mighty fish has been an icon of the region for centuries. It is an important source of food for many species of birds, as well as bears and river otters. Fly fishing anglers from all over the states flock to Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming to experience the colorful spotted beauties.
A beautiful, distinctive fish that’s a gem to see.
The Colorado River cutthroat trout has been called one of the most beautiful fish in North America—and we agree. Their identifiable markings include a bright yellow-gold body, often with greenish-brown on its back and darker spotting on the sides. The belly is pale and the fins are reddish or orange. The trout also has a reddish stripe under its lower jaw, distinguishing it from other trout species.
The average size of these trout is around 8-10 inches in length, but they can grow up to 18 inches. A trout that size is rare because they mostly live at high altitudes where the growing season is short and much of their habitat has been degraded.
The more habitat these fish can reclaim, the better.
The trout are found mostly in the Green and Colorado River basins. Historically, they inhabited the Colorado River and its tributaries from the headwaters in Colorado and Wyoming down to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. However, the population has declined significantly over the years due to human activity and introduced non-native species.
Today, the remaining populations of the Colorado River cutthroat trout are found in small, isolated streams and lakes in the higher elevations of headwaters. These fish require cold, clear water with high oxygen levels and gravelly or rocky stream bottoms for spawning.
They are another native species, threatened and declining.
The 1800s did not fare well for the Colorado River cutthroat trout. They were overfished and brought to the point of near extinction. Though their population has declined by over 90%, restocking of cutthroat and removal of nonnative species has helped. The trout are now listed as threatened versus endangered. The primary risks include habitat destruction, overfishing, water diversions and withdrawals, and the introduction of more non-native fish species.
Water diversions disrupt the natural flow of rivers and streams, affecting the trout’s ability to spawn and access their habitat. When non-native fish such as brown and rainbow trout were introduced, it opened up a whole new danger, as they prey upon the cutthroat. Climate change, wildfires and droughts also limit and degrade their habitat.
You can help this iconic fish live on.
Efforts to conserve the trout have been ongoing for decades, including the restoration of diverse yet well-connected streams with boulders and large, downed trees that provide cover from predators. Also critical are fish passage projects, the reintroduction of native trout populations, and the removal of brown and rainbow trout from where they don’t naturally live.
Organizations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state fish and wildlife agencies, are working together to protect and restore the Colorado River cutthroat trout and its habitat. These organizations also educate the public about the importance of conservation and responsible angling practices. While the cutthroat faces numerous threats, ongoing conservation efforts offer hope for its long-term survival.
Anglers can do their part by practicing responsible fishing practices, such as catch-and-release and avoiding fishing during spawning periods. Others can volunteer or give to organizations, like Forever Our Rivers, which works hard to restore aquatic and riparian habitat within and along rivers, crucial for the trout’s survival. The more habitat the better, and by working together, we can ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to experience the beauty and majesty of this remarkable, reputable fish.
With a $158,000 grant awarded by Forever Our Rivers Foundation, conservation crews have a head start on their annual quest to improve the health of the Colorado River basin.
Crew members will monitor, treat and prevent non-native species like tamarisk—one of the most invasive plants in the Colorado River basin—and nurture native species in Colorado, Utah and Arizona.
When harmful invasives are removed and replaced with native plants, the resulting increased biodiversity allows ecosystems to thrive and become more resilient to a changing climate.
“Combating invasive species is essential, and not only for protecting our unsurpassed hiking, fishing and boating experiences,” said Ann Johnston, executive director of Forever Our Rivers. “Rivers and streams are far more important than the water running through them.”
Conservation Legacy of Durango, Colorado, will lead the crews in partnership with watershed groups in the Dolores, Escalante, Verde and Gila Rivers of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Their Southwest Conservation Crews will work directly with local nonprofits in the individual watersheds.
“The funding not only progresses the vital restoration efforts of the watershed partnerships, it educates youth by engaging them directly with the work and helps build the next generation of land stewards,” said Nate Peters, Conservation Legacy’s watershed programs manager.
Healthy rivers provide clean water, store carbon, and serve as a buttress against the impacts of climate change. Introduced in the 1950s, Russian olive and tamarisk quickly choked waterways with dense growth that outcompeted native vegetation such as cottonwoods and willows, leading to severe channel narrowing. Preliminary research shows a significant decrease in channel width following the Russian Olive and tamarisk invasions, and a beneficial increase in width after treatment. In other words, treatment not only allows for the recovery of native vegetation but also restores more natural river geomorphology and meander. It also lowers fire danger and improves river access.
Conservation Legacy and the Southwest Conservation Crews will continue this important work throughout the summer and fall of 2023.
Those of you like Amy, obsessed with watching ABC’s new sitcom Not Dead Yet, may have noticed an episode where Nell’s roommate briefly touched on the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Didn’t catch it? Maybe only Amy noticed because it just so happened to be top of mind with Forever Our Rivers.
Why are the Southwestern Willow Flycatchers catching people’s attention—even of the Hollywood writers/producers? They’ve been endangered since 1995, have a huge impact on controlling insect populations, and well, are super cute songbirds.
A small but mighty songbird that relies on riparian habitats.
The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher is a migratory bird that thrives in lush areas along rivers in the southwestern United States and part of Mexico. Their native habitat among willows, box elders and cottonwoods provide important ecosystem services: these trees and shrubs filter sediment from water, improve soil and provide wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, these flycatchers have adapted to nest in thickets of non-native, invasive species such as saltcedar (also known as tamarisk) and Russian Olive. While we praise the birds for their adaptability, saltcedar and Russian olive are wreaking havoc on water quality and quantity in the southwest.
So, you may be wondering, how do we get rid of those invasive species without getting rid of the flycatchers? Don’t worry, we’ll cover that soon.
Flycatchers also eat insects such as mosquitoes, flies, beetles and moths. This helps regulate insect populations, which can have a significant impact on the environment. Occasionally they may eat berries such as blackberries and raspberries, but insects make up over 95% of their diet.
It’s estimated that only 2,500 to 3,000 flycatchers remain.
The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher population had been declining for decades. Climate change and human development such as water diversion, groundwater pumping and building along waterways have not done these birds any favors. Large portions of the flycatcher’s habitat have disappeared throughout much of its historic range. This led to the flycatcher being listed as a federally endangered species in 1995, where it still remains today.
What do we do about this?
Well, the flycatcher is in luck.
Conservation efforts are underway focused on habitat restoration and protection of the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. One of Forever Our Rivers’ partners, the Gila Watershed Partnership (GWP), is working hard on this huge balancing act.
“Even though trees such as desert willow are the native habitat of these birds, they have adapted to the saltcedar so well that much of the tamarisk thicket along the river has become untouchable due to Endangered Species Act restrictions. These thickets are dense enough to inhibit stream flow”, said Dr. Sarah Sayles, executive director of the Gila Watershed Partnership. Yet efforts to control non-native species such as saltcedar can be detrimental to flycatchers if the plants are removed without suitable native riparian habitat nearby to replace them with.In order to not to lose any habitats for the flycatchers, GWP follows the defoliation of salt cedar—usually done by the tamarisk beetle—by promoting and restoring native plants in their appropriate place along the Gila River.
I bet this question is on the tip of your tongue: Is the population still declining despite all the hard work? According to the American Bird Conservancy, the bird’s population is very slowly increasing. GWP hasn’t yet seen a difference in population but is hopeful. “We have seen the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher out on our work sites in some of the newly planted natives. We’ll continue to restore more and more native habitat for the endangered species of the Gila River. We’re in this for the long-haul”, Dr. Sarah explains.
This is just one example of the restoration work our river partners are doing along tributaries to the Colorado River. Thank you to our amazing nonprofit partners who are out there every day making a difference for the rivers and those that depend on them like the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher!
Beavers are in the news these days—and for good reason. According to recent research, their dam-building skills could be key to helping our rivers and watersheds become more climate resilient. It may be strange to think about one of the world’s largest rodents as a working-class superhero. But, the fact is, this keystone species is a hardworking ecosystem engineer.
Before the 1600s, the United States had approximately 221 million acres of wetlands and beavers roamed in almost every region that had streams and creeks. After the Europeans settled in North America, rivers were channelized by canals and dams, drying wetlands for agriculture, utilities and homes. At the same time, beavers were trapped for their valuable pelts. The landscape began to dry dramatically and beavers were almost driven to extinction. In the 1980s the United States was down to 103 million acres of wetlands, which has only continued to decline.
Wetlands are critically important because they improve water quality and supply by filtering contaminants, enhancing soil moisture and recharging groundwater. Beavers enhance wetlands by building dams, which slow water flow across floodplains, reducing the likelihood of flooding and helping landscapes survive forest fires. Who knew that was another one of their superhero abilities?
Fire can not spread easily on land filled with water, mud or well-hydrated vegetation. Past studies have shown that after large wildfires most of the large beaver wetlands were still green and healthy. Areas without beavers averaged three times more damage than those with beavers present. It’s pretty amazing and beneficial for other wildlife that can’t outrun the flames.
Fortunately, humans can help beavers make a comeback by creating beaver dam analogs on relic wetlands. This is especially important in the West as the climate warms and dries. These simple dam analogs have proven effective in slowing flows and enticing beavers back to historic wetlands. Given enough time, the beavers create lush riparian habitat ideal for fish, deer, elk, moose, swans and other birds.
In 2022, Forever Our Rivers helped fund a transformative project at Trail Creek, the headwaters of the Gunnison River—a tributary to the Colorado River. Crested Butte’s High Country Conservation Alliance partnered with the USFS and the National Forest Foundation to build more than 150 beaver dams at Trail Creek using willows, conifer and mud. The dams began to rewet 30 acres of historic wetlands. The bonus of this hard work was that two beavers found their way back to the area, finding it suitable for residence. The best ending to the story will be watching these beavers as they work, maintaining the wetlands for years to come.
While the beaver’s work can be a nuisance to some humans, the benefits of beavers are substantial. The love for beavers is continuing to grow nationwide as more people become aware of the need for their partnership.
Plus, they are cute, right? Even with their orange teeth.
Endangered but oh so loved
The Colorado River provides water to more than forty million people in two countries, seven states, and twenty-nine Native American tribes. Even though it’s endangered, it is still one of the nation’s most beloved and relied-upon rivers.
Want to know more?
Check out these 17 interesting facts by Inspirich and then tell us what you found most fascinating—we’d love to know!
Mimicking beaver activity, volunteers have been working for weeks in Colorado’s high country. A grant from Forever Our Rivers helped Crested Butte’s High Country Conservation Advocates recruit 55 energetic volunteers who helped wetland ecologists build more than 70 beaver mimicry structures at the headwaters of the Taylor River.
Students from Western Colorado University joined as well to participate in academic workshops centered around low-tech process-based restoration methods. Using sod, willows and conifers sourced on-site, these natural dams attenuate spring runoff which can contribute to later season flows. This was the second year of a multi-year collaborative effort located in the headwaters of the Gunnison River along Trail Creek in Taylor Park. The team, which includes the US Forest Service, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the National Forest Foundation and Gunnison County, was very pleased to see that two beavers have already returned to the valley, improving upon human-built beaver mimicry structures that were constructed last season.
By partnering with beaver to restore these natural ecosystems, the project aims to improve watershed and landscape-scale resilience to drought, flood and wildfire in the face of climate change. Beaver ponds not only store carbon and recharge the aquifer, they provide critical habitat for aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. “This project has had an immediate, positive impact”, said Eli Smith, stewardship director. Due to the effective impact of volunteers, restoration goals were met before the anticipated end date.
The Colorado River: Struggling to Keep the Lifeline Flowing
Everyone needs fresh water—and rivers are the lifeline to thriving communities. That’s why the Colorado River is in the spotlight. With all of its water fully allocated, it is one of the most controlled and litigated rivers in the world.
While the nightly news focuses mostly on the Colorado River compact, which affects water usage in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California, there is another intriguing story developing along the river’s delta.
Prior to the building of dams, the Colorado River flowed into the Sea of Cortez. The interaction of the river’s flow and the ocean’s tide created a very dynamic environment that supported a diversity of habitats, including marshes and mudflats. There were wet forests with cypress trees, cottonwoods and willows, and sandy beaches. The delta was a key stopover for hundreds of thousands of birds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway.
Historically, the estuary received about 14 million acre-feet of water each year. Now, on a good day, the estuary receives less than one percent of that. On a bad day, it receives none.
The very first dam on the Colorado was the Laguna Dam, completed in 1909. In total, there are now 15 dams on the main stem of the Colorado River and hundreds more on tributaries. The Colorado delta in Mexico is now a mostly dry stream, due in part to water diversion, higher temperatures and the spread of invasive plants. Many species that depended on the delta’s wetlands are now listed as endangered, including the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the razorback suckers. Local children no longer swim in the river and tribes, such as the Cucapá tribe, travel further to fish which is their primary source of food and income.
But there is good news.
Conservationists, ecologists and river champions in the U.S. and Mexico are restoring a portion of the wetlands and riparian forests along the path where the Colorado River once flowed. And, they’re seeing success.
Negotiations between binational leaders, individual farmers and nonprofits resulted in lower levels of diversion so that more water stays in the rivers. Nonprofits like the Sonoran Institute have acquired water rights, which they too keep instream. Cottonwoods and willows are coming back, birds are returning and fish are spawning. Southwestern Willow Flycatchers have been found again within the newly grown cottonwoods. Endangered fish, like the pupfish, razorback suckers and the bonytail are beginning to be restocked. And groups throughout the upper and lower basins, including Forever Our Rivers, are working hard to remove widespread invasive plants like the tamarisk, which uses an extraordinary amount of water, adds salt to the soil, and increases fire danger.
This video shot by the Los Angeles Times earlier this year demonstrates some of the delta’s successes. “We are showing people it’s possible to restore nature with a lot of will, a lot of work from scientists and the community”, said Gabriela Gonzalez-Olimon, environmental education coordinator for the Sonoran Institute.
There is hope.
You can help Forever Our Rivers work in many tributaries of the Colorado River, including the Gunnison and Dolores rivers of Colorado, the Escalante River in Utah, and the Gila and Verde Rivers in Arizona. Support the work here.
Chip Norton is happiest when he is out on the river. While his passion for kayaking has taken him throughout the western US and Alaska, he is the first to admit that it is the Verde River, his home river, that remains his favorite.
The Verde is one of Arizona’s few remaining perennial rivers. It is home to an amazing diversity of wildlife, including at least 270 species of birds. The willows and cottonwoods, Arizona’s rarest forest type, give way to the pale-colored sandstone.
Spending time on the river navigating the spring run-off energizes Chip. Floating past the lush expanse of plants and spotting bobcat, deer and bald eagles inspires him with awe.
He remembers one summer day back in 1990—when the water level was so low that he could not go for a paddle. “Plus, the water smelled like sewage,” he said. He could not ignore his concern that the river might eventually dry up. That day, he did the only thing that made sense from his perspective. He decided to act.
Doing something so few do, Chip retired at the age of 58 to begin his second career as a full-time community volunteer inspired to conserve rivers.
Chip is not a river ecologist, and he did not have a background in conservation. Yet he is a diligent problem solver and a man who likes to think big. The Verde River could not have asked for a more committed river champion.
He started by founding Friends of Verde River Greenway, a non-profit that brings people together to restore riparian habitat. Friends of Verde Greenway evolved into Friends of the Verde River, working at a watershed scale on river conservation including flow restoration, sustainable river recreation and groundwater issues.
After a decade focusing on restoration, Chip became interested in irrigation practices that used less water. In 2016, he collaborated with The Nature Conservancy and Hauser & Hauser Farms on a pilot project to improve summer river flow by switching to crops that used less water in the summer.
That is when the idea for Sinagua Malt was born. Chip consulted his friend Steve Ayers on the feasibility of a malting operation, and Steve immediately joined him as a founding director. Local conservationist Bob Rothrock soon joined them.
Using barley for malting has two significant benefits over traditional crops like corn and alfalfa. First, it consumes less water. Second, the highest water need for growing barley occurs in March, when the Verde experiences peak flow. “Barley doesn’t need any water after Memorial Day,” said Chip. “With drought and climate change, that’s just as important as using less water.”
Chip then boldly dipped into his retirement savings to build a small-scale malt house that processed locally grown two-row barley into malted barley. He also had to step up to the plate and learn to malt himself. Several craft brewers declared the malt tasty and became his first customers.
Sinagua Malt has been successful and recently expanded its operations. When asked about the key to project success, Chip said simply, “There was always a time when any one of us working on this project could have quit. But we just didn’t quit.”
Today, Sinagua Malt is a benefit corporation committed to distributing at least 5% of its profits to support river conservation. Hauser and Hauser Farms has converted more acreage to barley, as have other farmers in the watershed. This expansion of crop conversion acreage is largely the work of The Nature Conservancy, without whom this project could not have happened.
Chip’s quest to save his local river led him to a team effort that has saved and will continue to save, millions of gallons of water for the Verde River.
“Seeing improved summer flow through Camp Verde is immensely rewarding,” said Chip. “Despite extreme drought conditions, the Verde River in Camp Verde has enough flow this summer to support farmers and recreationists.”