GUNNISON, Colo. (CBS4) – A rescue mission performed during a raging wildfire last year may have saved a rare Colorado trout.
The first batch of semen and eggs have been harvested from 158 unique cutthroat trout that now thrive the Roaring Judy Hatchery in Gunnison.
They lived near Canon City a year ago.
In July of 2016, The Hayden Pass Fire started from a lightning strike. In days, with the help of strong winds and dry conditions, it evolved into a 26-square-mile event that forced the evacuation of 140 homes.
As residents raced out, firefighters raced in.
On their heels, a handful of wildlife volunteers with a singular focus – save a fish from fire.
And possibly extinction.
Workers from Colorado Parks & Wildlife and the United States Forest Service made what was called “a desperate dash” to Hayden Creek. They waded into the water, temporarily immobilized the fish with a small electric shock, and netted them.
Nearly 200 fish were caught.
They may be the last survivors of a specific species of cutthroat first discovered in the late 1800s.
Ichthyologist David Starr Jordan collected a pair of trout specimens in 1889 from Twin Lakes, near Leadville, according to the CPW. Today, those specimens reside at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
In 1996, CPW biologists discovered the Hayden Creek cutthroat contain unique genes matching those of the museum specimens.
Several hundred fish were left behind in Hayden Creek last July in hopes they would survive the fire — and subsequent flooding.
“Heavy rain events after a fire can inundate streams with debris, ash and sediment making it difficult for fish to survive and reproduce,” CPW wrote in a news release.
As feared, the fall monsoons “ravaged the watershed.”
Biologists returned to the area and did not find a single fish.
Of the nearly 200 trout rescued from the creek, 36 were sent to Newlin Creek near Canon City in hopes they would reproduce naturally.
The other 158 were taken to the Roaring Judy Hatchery where, June 12th, spawning operators began.
Seth Firestone, hatchery manager, said roe was stripped from 10 female cutthroat and mixed with milt from 10 males the first day. Action continued June 19 and the staff is hopeful for more success the week of June 26.
“The coordination that occurred between the USFS staff and CPW to rescue these fish from the wild during an active fire was truly amazing,” said Josh Nehring, CPW senior aquatic biologist. “Furthermore, our staff at Roaring Judy, lead by Seth Firestone, has provided exceptional care to these fish. It is not an easy task to take a wild fish into the hatchery and get them to survive let alone reproduce. Kudos to that team!”
There are obstacles. Hatchery personnel are presently working to contain a fungus outbreak growing on injuries that are attributed to aggressive males fighting in confined space.
“It’s a concern,” Firestone said, describing how the fish are receiving weekly baths in a mild saltwater solution to combat the fungus. “We are doing our best to keep it under control.”
Scientists from CU Boulder determined the only pure greenback cutthroat trout occupied Bear Creek west of Colorado Springs and were believed extinct in the 1930s.