The Leadville National Fish Hatchery was established in 1889 at the base of Mt. Massive and has raised fish to stock the country’s inland waterways for more than 125 years. After successfully eliminating a whirling disease outbreak in the early 2000s, the hatchery began to raise the greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s endangered state fish. In 2013 the US Fish and Wildlife Service considered closing the hatchery because of budgetary concerns, but new appropriations ensured that the hatchery will continue its fish-management missions for the foreseeable future.
Raising Trout in the Rockies
The US Fish Commission started in 1871 and soon established a national fish hatchery program with the goal of stabilizing and increasing the number of freshwater food fish in inland waterways. In 1888 the US Fish Commissioner began to search for a site in the Rocky Mountains to build a new national fish hatchery that could be used for breeding game fish and replenishing fish in the country’s rivers and streams. A 3,072-acre site near Leadville at the base of Mt. Massive satisfied the basic requirements: a plentiful supply of cold, clean water from mountain streams and nearby sources of native cutthroat trout.
President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order establishing the Leadville hatchery in 1889. That summer Congress appropriated $15,000 for the hatchery’s construction. The cornerstone for the main hatchery building was laid in October 1889. Thirty stonemasons used native sandstone to construct the building, which is about one hundred feet by forty feet and contains a large central room for hatching fish.
Tourism has always played a large role at the hatchery, and the site was designed from the beginning with visitors in mind. The main hatchery building commands a striking view east across the Arkansas River to Leadville and the mountains beyond. When the building opened in November 1890, one local newspaper article called it “the most magnificent building in western Colorado.”
The hatchery began to raise trout even before the main building was completed. Hatchery workers collected eggs from high-altitude lakes and incubated them at a temporary building in 1889. In 1891, after two years of growth, the hatchery’s first batch of trout was ready for distribution to Colorado, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Eventually the Leadville hatchery began to send fish across the United States; eggs were shipped as far away as Japan. Many of these fish were transported by rail, traveling in cars designed specifically to carry fish, though in the early years some reached their final destination in milk cans hauled by horse and buggy.
The Leadville National Fish Hatchery has been in operation for more than 125 years, supplying fish to stock the nation’s rivers and streams and enhance the experience of tourist fishermen in the Rocky Mountains. In the past twenty years, however, it has twice been threatened with closure.
In 1995 the waters at the hatchery tested positive for whirling disease, a parasitic disease that can cause deformities, erratic behavior, and eventually death among trout and salmon. That year Colorado implemented new regulations prohibiting whirling disease–positive hatcheries from supplying fish to river systems where the disease had not yet been found. This restricted the Leadville hatchery to stocking low-elevation waters already contaminated with the disease.
The whirling disease concern, along with budgetary problems, prompted the US Fish and Wildlife Service to consider closing the hatchery in the late 1990s. The hatchery stayed open, however, because it still played a valuable role in supplying fish to low-elevation lakes and rivers. In fiscal year 2000, for example, it produced more than 200,000 trout and stocked more than twenty areas.
The hatchery experienced a rebirth after 2003, when Congress appropriated $1.8 million for a new water treatment plant, which was installed in 2004. The hatchery also stopped using its old earthen-bottom ponds and added eight new concrete raceways for rearing trout. As a result of these changes, the hatchery completely eliminated whirling disease by the start of 2007, allowing it to resume stocking high-elevation waters where the disease was not present.
After it eradicated whirling disease from its culture facilities, the Leadville hatchery began to raise greenback cutthroat trout, the Colorado state fish. The greenback cutthroat trout population in Colorado declined precipitously over the twentieth century, when it was displaced by other cutthroat trout species, mistakenly believed to be greenback cutthroats, that were stocked in the state’s waters. The greenback cutthroat trout is endangered and occurs in the wild in only one creek, west of Colorado Springs. The Leadville hatchery now holds more than 500 adult greenback cutthroat trout. Offspring from these fish were released into Zimmerman Lake, north of Rocky Mountain National Park, in August 2014. The state has plans to reintroduce several populations of the fish throughout its historic home waters in the upper South Platte River Basin.
In 2013 the US Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a comprehensive review of its fish hatcheries nationwide. As a result of that year’s federal budget sequestration, the agency considered closing the Leadville hatchery (along with other hatcheries across the country). In response to the agency’s review, Congress substantially increased the national fish hatchery budget, eliminating the possibility of hatchery closures for the time being.
The Leadville hatchery celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2014.