Thanks to Conservation Programs, Colorado’s Fish and Wildlife Are Thriving
Colorado boasts one of the most diverse and abundant wildlife populations in North America. Home to an astonishing 960 wildlife species, it might be easy to assume that Colorado’s fish and wildlife have always flourished. However, many of the state’s most cherished and iconic species prosper today only because of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) species conservation and wildlife reintroduction programs.
From the majestic Rocky Mountain elk and bighorn sheep, to the esteemed cutthroat trout and the renowned Canada lynx, here’s a summary of some of the species that are benefiting from ongoing conservation efforts, as well as the fish and wildlife that are thriving today because of CPW’s long and distinguished history of past achievements.
Colorado Outdoors Online thanks CPW employees, both past and present, who have dedicated their careers to protecting and perpetuating Colorado’s fish and wildlife resources, and graciously acknowledges Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), sportsmen and the many conservation organizations who have generously supported these efforts.
Nearly 20 years ago, CPW launched what was to become one of the most ambitious and high-profile wildlife reintroductions in state history. Known as the Colorado Lynx Reintroduction Program, CPW set out to re-establish wild lynx—a species which was extirpated (no longer found in Colorado) by the late 1970s. Because of Colorado’s isolation to the nearest lynx populations in Montana and northern Wyoming, CPW biologists viewed reintroduction as the only viable option to return lynx to the Centennial State. CPW began reintroducing lynx in 1999, releasing cats captured in Canada and Alaska into the remote San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. In a seven-year period, CPW introduced 218 of the Canuck cats, monitoring radio- and satellite-collared lynx as they slowly established breeding populations in the San Juans and expanded their range into Summit County and other parts of Colorado’s high country. Based on breeding surveys, monitoring results and meeting the program’s original goals, CPW declared the lynx reintroduction a success in 2010. Today, an estimated 150-250 of the tufted-eared cats now roam Colorado’s backcountry.
This slideshow shows a lynx release in the San Juan Mountains. Photos by Tony Gurzick/CPW
Mother Nature was truly a piscatorial Picasso when she designed the cutthroat trout. Beautiful and vibrant, the cutthroat’s medley of colors and spots make it one of the most cherished fish among Colorado anglers. Colorado is home to three subspecies of native cutthroat: the Rio Grande, Colorado River and the renowned Greenback, which was designated Colorado’s state fish in 1994. But, despite its iconic stature, the plight of the cutthroat has been both challenging and uncertain. For decades, cutthroat trout populations have declined throughout the western United States. Working with a consortium of state and federal wildlife agencies, Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups, CPW has developed an aggressive conservation strategy to help restore native cutthroat populations. A key component of cutthroat conservation is CPW’s egg-collection, hatchery and stocking programs. In 2015, CPW stocked 1.6 million cutthroat trout into more than 400 lakes, rivers and streams throughout the state. Fishery biologists are hopeful that continued stocking will bolster Colorado’s cutthroat populations and ensure the fish’s long-term sustainability.
This short video, “Panning for Gold,” provides an intimate look into one of CPW’s Rio Grande cutthroat spawning operations in southwest Colorado:
The “Gobble-obble-obble!” of a wild turkey is one of the most recognizable sounds in all of nature. Yet, the wild turkey’s boisterous call was nearly silenced in the early 1900s because of poaching and habitat destruction. At the time of the Great Depression, only 30,000 turkeys remained in all of North America. Today, thanks to conservation efforts by sportsmen’s groups and state and federal wildlife agencies, the United States is home to nearly 7 million of the wild birds.
CPW, in cooperation with the National Wild Turkey Federation, launched an aggressive reintroduction program in the 1980s to help strengthen Colorado’s dwindling populations. In the last three decades, Colorado’s turkey population has surged to more than 35,000 turkeys, and the abundant birds are now found in 53 of the state’s 64 counties. Colorado has two subspecies of wild turkeys: The native Merriam’s, which are found in the foothills and mountain meadows west of I-25, and the Rio Grande, which were introduced to riparian corridors on the Eastern Plains. The reintroduction of wild turkeys in Colorado has proven so successful that CPW has increased hunting licenses to help manage turkey populations in areas where the birds have become too plentiful.
CPW’s Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility
The J. W. Mumma Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility (NASRF) is dedicated to protecting and restoring threatened and endangered aquatic species native to Colorado. The state-of-the-art facility, located near Alamosa, currently raises 12 species of threatened and endangered fish, including the federally endangered bonytail chub and other state species of concern. The facility also raises the endangered boreal toad. Since its inception in 2000, the NASRF has protected 16 different fish species and has stocked more than 2.1 million fish in rivers, streams and lakes throughout Colorado. The NASRF is the only hatchery of its kind in North America.
The boreal toad is Colorado’s only alpine species of toad, inhabiting lakes, marshes and ponds at elevations between 8,000- 12,000 feet. Formerly widespread and common, the small, montane toads are now extremely scarce. Because of declining populations, Colorado listed the boreal toad as a state endangered species in 1993. In the past two decades, CPW has devoted significant resources to determine why the toads have declined and to explore viable options for recovery. Biologists now know that the chytrid fungus, a pathogen that causes a fatal skin disease in amphibians, is the primary reason for the boreal toad’s sharp decline.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility (NASRF) has played a critical role in efforts to restore boreal toads to Colorado ecosystems. The NASRF has raised 133,546 tadpoles, toadlets and adult toads, which CPW biologists have translocated to help re-establish boreal toads in their historical habitat. The greatest obstacle for biologists, however, is locating suitable habitat that is unaffected by the chytrid fungus. In 2014, biologists documented a breeding population of boreal toads near Cameron Pass—the first translocation effort that has resulted in known recruitment and natural reproduction. CPW biologists are hopeful that future translocations will establish additional breeding sites throughout the state.
The black-footed ferret is one of the most endangered mammals in North America. A member of the weasel family, the black-footed ferret sharply declined throughout the 20th century because of sylvatic plague and decreases in prairie dog populations—the ferret’s primary food source. Biologists declared the species extinct in 1979, until a small colony of ferrets was discovered on a private ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. From this tiny population (18 ferrets), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) developed a successful captive-breeding and reintroduction program to help re-establish wild ferret populations in the western U.S. Since then, the USFWS and state wildlife agencies have released ferrets in eight western states, and an estimated 200-300 ferrets now live in the wild.
In 2013, CPW launched an ambitious reintroduction program to return black-footed ferrets to Colorado. Since the program’s inception, CPW has released 300 ferrets at six different sites in Larimer, Adams, Pueblo, Baca and Prowers counties. Most of the ferrets were acquired from the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center (FCC) in Larimer County (think of the FCC as bootcamp for ferrets). Here, the captive-raised animals learn the skills necessary to hunt and survive on their own. Once the ferrets have demonstrated independence, they are released into the wild. Although Colorado’s reintroduction program is still in its infancy, wildlife biologists are optimistic about the ferret’s plight. Surveys indicate that ferrets remain at all six release sites with successful breeding documented at two locations. In the next few years, CPW biologists intend to release ferrets at additional sites with the hopes of establishing self-sustaining populations. Because four of the six release sites are located on private property, CPW has worked cooperatively with private landowners, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the city of Fort Collins on Colorado’s Black-Footed Ferret Reintroduction Program.
Weighing up to 1,000 pounds and towering at more than 6 feet at the shoulder, the Shiras moose is Colorado’s largest big-game animal. In addition to its massive size, the moose is also one of Colorado’s biggest conservation success stories. Although common today, the Shiras moose was quite rare in Colorado throughout most of the 20th century. CPW biologists believed that the only way to establish a self-sustaining moose population in Colorado was to transplant animals from neighboring states. In 1978, CPW conducted the first transplant of 24 moose from Utah and Wyoming to Colorado’s North Park region near Walden. Over the next three decades, biologists released more than 200 additional animals from Wyoming and Utah to the Grand Mesa and other areas of the state. Today, Colorado is home to more than 2,400 moose and boasts one of the fastest growing populations in the lower 48 states. In fact, the animals are doing so well that moose are vamoosing the mountain parks where they were originally introduced and are expanding into new territories. In recent years, moose have even ventured into Front Range suburbs. Although a favorite viewing animal among Colorado residents and tourists alike, moose are extremely unpredictable and dangerous, and they will charge aggressively if disturbed or threatened. CPW has increased hunting licenses in recent years to help manage growing populations, offering moose hunting in 57 game management units throughout Colorado.
Rocky Mountain Elk
Living in Colorado, it’s easy to take for granted our enormous elk herds. After all, Colorado is home to more than 280,000 animals—the largest elk population in the world. But did you know that elk were near extinction at the turn of the century? In the early 1900s, only 40,000 elk remained in all of North America. The elk’s dramatic demise was attributed to unregulated market-hunting. A century ago, Colorado imported 50 elk from Wyoming to re-establish dwindling herds. The elk were transported and released in Idaho Springs and in the Greenhorn Mountains in Pueblo County. From these meager transplants, and through decades of trapping and relocation efforts by wildlife managers, elk populations have soared to the abundant herds for which Colorado is now famous. CPW, in cooperation with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other sportsmen’s groups, continues to conduct research, protect key winter range and migration corridors and improve statewide habitat to ensure Colorado’s elk herds remain abundant for future generations.
Majestic and agile, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is a prominent figure on the steep and jagged walls of Colorado’s canyons. Because of its iconic status, the bighorn was declared Colorado’s state animal in 1961 and, for nearly 100 years, the mighty ram has been the proud symbol for CPW’s logo. But, despite its prominence and grandeur, the bighorn was near extinction at the turn of the century. Diseases introduced through European livestock and overhunting had decimated populations throughout the West, and only a small number of the native sheep remained in Colorado in the early 1900s.
CPW, in cooperation with the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, has spent decades rebuilding sheep populations through aggressive trapping and relocation efforts. CPW conducted the first sheep transplants in the 1940s, including planting bighorns between Georgetown and Silver Plume. Known simply as the “Georgetown herd,” this population of 250-350 sheep is one of the largest herds in the state and has become one of the most popular sheep viewing sites in the nation. Since Colorado’s restoration efforts began, CPW has completed more than 100 bighorn sheep transplants, most of which took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Recent transplants include Gore Canyon in northwest Colorado.
Bighorn sheep are extremely susceptible to infectious diseases and experience regular outbreaks of pneumonia, usually transmitted from domestic sheep and goats. Therefore, keeping wild sheep and domestic sheep separate is important in disease prevention in bighorns. CPW closely monitors bighorn sheep herds and maintains healthy populations through controlled hunting and ongoing trapping and relocation. Thanks to decades of dedicated conservation efforts, Colorado’s bighorn sheep are once again abundant with an estimated statewide population of 7,000 animals.
View photo slideshow below to see photos of a bighorn sheep transplant by helicopter. Photos by Jamin Grigg/CPW.
Dedication and Cooperation Bring Success
For CPW’s team of wildlife managers and biologists, protecting and restoring Colorado’s fish and wildlife resources brings great rewards, but success does not come easily. Wildlife reintroductions are a complicated and delicate process where biologists and field staff may spend years establishing self-sustaining populations.
Because of its dedicated staff, CPW has become one of the premier wildlife conservation organizations in the world. And by working cooperatively with Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), sportsmen’s groups and conservation organizations, CPW has leveraged its resources to ensure Colorado remains at the forefront of conservation science and wildlife management.
The restoration of these and many other fish and wildlife species in Colorado did not happen by accident. It is the direct result of scientific research, partner collaboration and dedicated funding.
For further information about wildlife conservation in Colorado, visit CPW’s website to view species profiles for sage-grouse, greater prairie-chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, river otters, peregrine falcons, bats and more.
Written by Jerry Neal. Neal is the editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist and videographer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.