Preserving the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout: Lessons in Environmental Activism

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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When we first moved to our mountain community we learned that the creeks in our community contained native species of trout. The streams and their clear sparkling water are perfect habitat for abundant native trout that have been in the streams for millennia. The trout and their habitat were being monitored by the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado biologist would make periodic visits to ensure non-native fish were not overpowering the native fish. The Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout have specific genetic markers that set them apart from other cutthroat trout, which makes them unique to the San Luis Valley.

We are therefore privileged to reside in an area that holds native trout which have been in the stream for thousands of years. Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado had only a few streams that contained these native species and they had been close to being put on the endangered species list over the years if not for the intense conservation efforts. 

Suddenly Placed In Danger. One day when on a picnic with friends by the stream, I noticed a white pipe sticking up out of the stream and went to investigate. I found the stream had recently been dammed up. Fish were no longer able to swim up and down the stream and were cut off from being able to protect themselves during our harsh winters here in the mountains. Unable to reach the deeper holes up/downstream, it would ultimately endanger the native population in our stream. I have been involved in environmental issues over my lifetime and I could not stand by and allow this to happen. I also reported on this via a blog post for MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

No Legal Protection? I soon had the state biologist looking at the dammed up portion with me. He sadly reported that there were no state laws to prohibit this. That has since been remedied by New Mexico and Colorado coming together to pass a law in 2009 that will now protect our waters and the native fish. I subsequently contacted a friend in Denver who is a U.S. government investigator for advice and the next thing I knew there were 5 different government agencies who did have the legal authority to address this illegal procedure.

Federal Government Stepped Up Big Time. As I was speaking with my friend, he was able to access a satellite view of the creek and determine it originated on federal land and therefore they had jurisdiction. Next, the US Army Corp of Engineers delivered a letter to those responsible giving them 10 days to restore the creek to its original condition or face fines up to $50,000.00 a day until it was restored. The threats I had been getting from those responsible suddenly stopped and the culprits focused on trying to intimidate the government agencies but the creek was restored to its near original condition within the allotted time.

Spring Wildfire Disaster. Then in 2018, the Spring Wildfire (3rd largest in Colorado history) consumed much of our area including the pristine creeks. The creeks are now black with ash and the creek bottom is covered with soot so any life in the creek has been greatly impacted. Fortunately, the story does not end there because  the native Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout are part of a conservation project in Pitkin hatchery, where they are breeding these native fish in order to conserve the species. Our creeks are going to require much work to make them suitable again for these native fish but it is nice knowing the fish will be available for restocking when the creeks are restored.

Finally Protection For The Fish. The future of this native species is now protected and if anyone in the future does anything to put these fish at risk there are now laws that can apply. I don’t know if it was the action I took to restore our creek that brought it to the attention of state officials to act to protect a rare and unique species of fish but no longer will a biologist have to stand by a violation involving this species of fish and sadly say there are no laws that apply.

Bullies and Intimidation. Those who illegally dammed up the creek and their threats to destroy/harm me for reporting them did not deter me because I knew I was doing the right thing. Anyone else who is sure they are right should not cave in to threats or bully tactics either. Threats and intimidation are often tactics by those caught doing wrong. When the US Army Corp of Engineers got involved they stopped threatening me and instead threatened to sue the government agencies and directed their bluster at them.

Native Trout For Future Generations. These native trout are now safely guarded for the future and it all started when I investigated and documented facts. Facts don’t change but stories and excuses do, so it is very important to document facts and carefully research your issue. I got very lucky in contacting a friend for advice because he knew exactly where to go and what to do. Not everyone has such a friend so a little research ahead of time as to who to contact could save a lot of time.

Persistence Pays Off. As an example, I once reported the dispersion of a toxic chemical in our community and was rebuffed by the EPA and State of Colorado agency that regulate such incidents. I didn’t give up but sent a letter to the Governor inquiring why our enforcement agencies were too busy to address toxic chemicals that pose a serious health risk. I included names and facts to bolster  my inquiry. I promptly received a reply from the very same person who said they were not interested initially. His tone and demeanor were greatly improved and my request went to the top of his to-do projects and the matter was quickly resolved.

The Power Of One. Both instances demonstrate that the power of one person can be highly effective if that person is willing to persist, has documented the facts and can present them in a fair and unbiased manner without being threatening or hostile. Be prepared to spend the time and effort necessary and don’t get sidelined by those who want to engage you in distractions or bully tactics and stay focused. In the later case of the carcinogenic chemicals the laws were outdated and subsequently I was invited to participate in the development of more applicable laws. Getting involved means time and commitment and if you know or have someone to assist you that knows the proper procedures it is helpful.

Photo by Bruce McElmurray

Bruce McElmurray homesteads at high elevation in the Southern Rockies with his wife, Carol. For more on their mountain lifestyle and their observances of animals coupled with their strange behavior, visit Bruce’s personal blog site atBruce Carol Cabin. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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