This morning’s Daily Camera (Nov.5, 2012) ,with its customary insouciance, carries a column by Ed Engle on the fortunes of the greenback cutthroat trout. Ed takes the party-line of the University of Colorado geneticists who have sought the birth certificate of the trout that for three decades has been thought to be the long lost authentic greenback. What they have discovered under their microscopes, they believe means that the greenback that we only thought we knew is, in fact, a forgery.
I have been writing on this subject for two decades myself and now feel called upon to weigh in again on behalf of the greenbacks we know and have fostered. You may like to read on….
Bringing Back the Greenback-- Again
Some years ago, thinking, among my vanities, that I perhaps, better than any other, knew the earliest part of the story of the recovery of the “lost’ greenback cutthroat trout, I wrote on just that in The American Fly Fisher and in my own Notes from an Old Fly Book. (2001)
I wrote of that summer day in 1953, when my dear friend and fishing companion William H. Rickard, Jr. came down to Boulder from the University of Colorado Mountain Research Station on Como Creek to show me some small, obviously cutthroat trout. He was sure they were different from the other cutthroats he knew so well, and likely remnants of the long lost greenback. He had caught them in tiny Como Creek where it ran through the station property.
I confess that I was uninterested. I, like so many other fishermen of that dark time, scorned the cutthroat as dumb, too easy to catch, and a poor fighter on the fly.
Bill took his fish first to the library and then to the curator at the University of Colorado Museum who told him to stop wasting his time and to get back to his proper research in botany. No one was interested in Bill’s little trout; so he pickled them in alcohol and left them to gather dust on the shelves of the Research Station, there on alpine Como Creek were this pretty little trout had hidden out.
Hidden, that is, until that fateful day in 1969 when one of the world’s leading scholars of the salmonids, Professor Robert Behnke at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, weighed in. He had heard talk of a strangely different trout high up there in the Boulder Creek watershed. He and his team went up and found them both alive and pickled. And, after exacting analysis of the trout’s genetics, morphology, and history, he was able to publish that the greenback had not perished after all. These Como Creek trout were the real thing, the long lost, primordial subspecies of cutthroat, Oncorhynchus clarki stomias, that up until, say,1890, were everywhere and plentiful in the watershed of the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers.
But I didn’t care about Bill’s fish. I belonged to the modern brotherhood of the rainbow and brown trout, neither or them native to our waters, the one from California, the other from Europe. What did I care about natives or nativism! I cared only for the strength of the rainbow and the intelligence of the brown, and my pleasure in fishing for them.
Only when I came to write on this matter in my old age was I able, I thought, to understand how it is that we have come to value so highly natives like the greenback, even to a fanatical readiness to purge our lakes and streams of the foreigners, the exotics.
It was clear enough to me that it was the immense cultural upheaval of the notorious and revolutionary sixties, and its impact public consciousness regarding the natural world that did it. We were re-introduced to the vivid natural world and its myriad creatures. We became their partisans. Some to the point where they could argue the return even to a pre-European West. “Nativism” became a hue and cry. We became believers. And the greenback shall lead them.
We wanted a West where natives of every stripe could be restored to pride of place. Those sixties were, as they say today, “transformative”. We are the better for them.
In any case, and back to Rickard’s Como Creek trout, In 2007, two University of Colorado biologists stumbled awkwardly in their effort to declare that it was not so, that the cutthroat that Behnke had decreed were greenbacks were, in fact, essentially degraded, hybridized Colorado River cutthroat.
The chips were down, but Behnke-- with others-- was able to deflect this pronouncement and again validate the authenticity of greenback from Como Creek and the Little South Fork of the Poudre River. To the relief of all, even to the far-reaches of the national angling community, the twenty newly established greenback populations, now seemed safe from the microscopes and computers of the molecular biologists in their labs.
I facetiously called it, “The Tale of Two Universities”-- C U and C S U.
Those twenty new populations of greenback were more or less secure, until, that is, this twenty-second day of September of 2012, and five years later, when the same researchers out of CU announced to the press, that what was the cold case of the greenback was now hot again and that they could now affirm that the pure greenback was to be found exclusively in four miles of sad and abused little Bear Creek, on the southern slope of Pikes Peak.
With breathtaking alacrity Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, and the US Forest Service jumped to proclaim the final truth of the CU biologists. Which was that the only pure greenback were those in miserable little Bear Creek. It smelt of politics.
This could mean only that the twenty populations of greenback, established at great expense and state-wide effort, are frauds, pretenders, now become trash-fish. The exclusive and tiny family of greenbacks in tiny Bear Creek, not their native home, you are to observe, of this trout, are the result of stocking by an obscure hotelier in order to build his business by stocking Bear Creek with trout that he got, we assume, somewhere in the Arkansas/Platte watersheds.
Suddenly this “scientific” controversy becomes “The Tale of Two Cities”, Boulder and Colorado Springs, fraught with wide commercial, social, scientific, and recreational implications.
What, for instance, shall Rocky Mountain National Park now do about its faux greenbacks in Roaring River, Lily Lake, all over the park, that have become a national attraction? What does it say to all those anglers whom the park has apparently deceived?
Has CU made fools of us all, possessed as it is of final truth from its dedicated geneticists?
Behnke has been at pains to show how the CU work is not sound science
-- a faux science not allowing for doubt and uncertainty, the very heart and soul of scientific endeavor.
He emphasizes the importance of field-work, of studying the trout in their small, isolated populations where they have survived as progeny of an ancient trout that made its way up the great Columbia to diversify into several wonderful subspecies. In their various isolations, genetic differences were all but certain to occur, while their profound morphology remained relatively stable markers in their taxonomy.
So, there must always be a hidden agenda in the effort of a greater power broker to take charge of any issue over the lesser. It may well be as simple as the ongoing effort of academic biology to cleanse itself of those despised “naturalists” who run about on weekends collecting, preserving, and naming living things. What is needed, after all, is only a swab of DNA and a Mac in the comfort and security of the laboratory to yield truth.
And when you come to think of it, in the ruminations of some advanced biologists, it is uncertain that we can know exactly what it means to be a species in the first place.
Perhaps Trout Unlimited, Parks and Wildlife, and the Forest Service will once again turn away from their enthusiasm for unilateral genetics.
My grandson, who came from New Jersey to catch a greenback, most probably did just that on the upper reaches of Roaring River. Like the quacking duck of the adage, his fish was in every way what a greenback was supposed to be, and so most probably was.
This, the glamour fish of our mountain time, remains most beautiful, found in the loveliest places, rarest, best on the table, and most magical. It is also rather dumb and easy to catch.