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Saving unique and endangered Colorado fish species

Posted at 1:53 PM, Oct 31, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-31 17:12:19-04

FREMONT COUNTY – Colorado Parks and Wildlife is working to save a unique species of fish that came face-to-face with possible extinction during the 2016 Hayden Pass fire in Fremont County.

“So today we stocked a very unique and special cutthroat trout into a fishless section of Newlin Creek,” stated Michael Atwood, an area aquatic biologist for CPW.

This isn’t the first or last step in saving this rare species that’s related to  the Colorado River cutthroat trout, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

First, a little bit of history.

More than 2 years ago, a unique group of trout were discovered, “Unique meaning that we don’t find these trout’s genetics anywhere else on the landscape,” said Atwood.

When the fire broke out, and it was determined that this species’ home was right in the line of fire, CPW made the call to swoop in, take half the population of the species to safety, while leaving the rest. “With the chance that they may be able to persist and survive those post-fire effects,” said Atwood.

Unfortunately, even once the fire was dealt with, heavy rains on the burn scar caused ash and debris flows that seemed to have smothered those fish that remained.

“Since that time, on many return trips to Hayden Creek, we have been unable to find any of those cutthroat trout in that one population that we knew about,” commented Atwood.

So this trout species exists only inside CPW hatcheries and now inside Newlin Creek thanks to recent release efforts. “That’s a sad story, but it justifies the efforts that we took,” said Atwood.

Since that time trout were bred and the first of several new habitats was identified and cleared of fish.

“We came in and did what’s called a reclamation project; where we came in and removed all the fish that were present prior. That way we knew it was a fishless environment, so when we put in the trout, they wouldn’t have any species to compete with,” said Atwood.

After that, it was a matter of packing up the fish in giant, plastic bags for travel and redistribution.

“Each bag has one gallon of water, one cup of ice, and then we fill the rest of the bag with oxygen,” stated Seth Firestone from the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery.

Those bags, then go into other, bigger bags, “So they are double bagged,” for the final leg of this fish faux-migration.

CPW staff then hike the fish down to the creek, the final home for these 900 scaled and tailed migrants.

“Over the course of the year, this (the fish hike) isn’t something that’s uncommon,” continued Atwood.

Now, 900 isn’t the total remaining count of this species, only a fraction, with plenty remaining in the hatchery for future distribution.

“The goal right now is to get these fish out into 3-5 different stream systems,” all in an attempt to spread them out, “in the event of any catastrophic natural event, like a fire or flood; if we lose one of those populations, we haven’t lost all of them,” Atwood concluded.

At the end of the day (this day) the fish went into their new home happy and healthy, “That was the goal,” and the hope is they will continue to persist and propagate that way.

“These fish are going to be on their own, [but] we’ll be checking back on them year after year to see how they’re doing.”