WESTCLIFFE, Colo. (CBS4) — Colorado wildlife officials continued their efforts to save a Colorado fish from extinction last week. Two thousand young cutthroat trout were packed into steel canisters and placed on the backs of mules for the trek to their new home in Cottonwood Creek on July 1.
“This is a throwback,” said Bill Vogrin of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “The first fish brought into Colorado were brought by horseback.”
These are special cutthroats, the recipients of no small effort to keep the species alive after it was thought to be lost forever.
The rare cutthroats were first discovered in 1889 by ichthyologist David Starr Jordan. He collected of pair of the trout from Twin Lakes near Leadville for evaluation. Turns out they were genetically unique, and those two fish reside today at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
Within a few decades, they were believed extinct.
It wasn’t until 1996 that biologists were shocked to discover a trout that shared the same genetics. It was found in Hayden Creek, almost 100 miles south of Leadville, a small waterway running east from the Sangre De Cristo mountains toward the town of Coaldale.
This, the species’s only home, is the same area that saw a lightning strike start a 16,000-acre wildfire in 2016.
As residents raced out of the area with their belongings, firefighters sprinted in — followed closely by a group of volunteers intent on saving fish from the fire.
They came out with 158 of the trout. Those fish left behind predictably did not survive the subsequent sludge of ash washed by rainfall from the fire area’s hillsides.
Thirty-six of those survivors went immediately to Newlin Creek south of Florence. Those fish did not survive drought the following year.
The remaining cutthroats, however, were housed at the Roaring Judy Hatchery near Crested Butte. In a credit to the facility’s staff, the wild fish were nursed back to health and encouraged to spawn.
It’s their offspring that were hauled uphill last week.
“In creeks like this, really steep (trail),” CPW’s Vogrin said, “we were able to put 2,000 fish on each mule. That saved us a ton of manpower.”
The mules took the longest stretch of trail, allowing the fish to be transplanted six miles up the drainage.
This won’t be the last operation of its kind.
“We are looking at several streams in the Arkansas basin where these fish could be introduced,” said Josh Nehring, CPW senior aquatic biologist. “Spreading them across the region makes them less vulnerable to extinction due to an isolated catastrophic fire or flood event.”
Colorado’s greenback cutthroat, the state fish, is undergoing similar redistribution. The fish was thought to be extinct in the 1950s but was discovered in a section of Bear Creek southwest of Colorado Springs in 2012.
CBS4’s Matt Kroschel accompanied a group relocating a fresh batch of greenback cutthroats to their new home in Herman Gulch off Interstate 70 last summer.