LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – For the first time since the historic Cameron Peak Fire charred a record-breaking 208,000 acres in 2020, and since the rain on the burn scar caused fatal flooding in the Poudre Canyon in July of 2021, wildlife officers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife are seeing the detrimental impact the blaze had on the fish in the Cache la Poudre River. As feared, recent surveys of the river showed thousands of fish were killed as a result of the fire and its lasting impacts.
“The runoff events we saw this summer, post fire, have had a detrimental impact on the fishery,” said Kyle Battige, Aquatic Biologist with CPW.
Only CBS4’s Dillon Thomas was invited to join CPW staff as they conducted their first fish testing of the year along the Poudre River.
Battige and his team conducted Standardized Electrofishing Surveys along the Poudre River in mid-October, their first time surveying the region since the fatal flooding and Cameron Peak Fire.
Electrofishing is when a team of CPW staff slowly wade their way upstream carrying poles which are connected to a generator. The team shocks the water, causing the fish to be temporarily stunned. Behind the charged rods are a team of workers with nets waiting to catch every fish in the specified region.
This is a process completed every year. However, the shocking done in 2021 gave CPW their first clear understanding of the lasting impacts of the Cameron Peak Fire on the fish.
“This year in particular, we are able to monitor the impacts from the post-runoff from the Cameron Peak Fire,” Battige said.
The fatal landslide in July claimed the lives of four people near the Black Hollow Road area. CBS4 was invited to join CPW as they surveyed their two nearest stations, one upstream and one downstream from the slide.
Kelly Flats is a campground and recreation area just downstream from the landslide.
“Last year we caught approximately 200 fish,” Battige said of the roughly 40-yard stretch of the river they survey at Kelly Flats. “(This year) we caught zero trout.”
Not one single fish was found near Kelly Flats, just one year after hundreds were located there. Battige said he expected there to be fewer fish due to the impacts of the past year. However, he said he was shocked to not catch one single fish.
“Not seeing any fish at Kelly Flats was certainly startling,” Battige said. “That is a pretty significant loss.”
When the flooding of 2021 took place the Poudre River quickly turned from clear and pristine waters to dark and muddy. Some described the water as looking like oil sludge. The flooding caused local businesses to shut down for several days, and also ruined fishing trips for many. CPW said the sediment in the water likely suffocated many of the fish.
“There was a lot of debris, a lot of sediment and ash that came down the river, likely starving the fish of oxygen,” Battige said.
Though the results of the electrofishing were upsetting for the staff at Kelly Flats, greater signs of hope were unveiled a mile upstream from the landslide.
Within 30 seconds of entering the Poudre upstream from the slide and turning on their electrofishing system, multiple fish were being caught for counting.
“The good news is, there are still fish in the Poudre River,” Battige said.
At the survey station upstream more than 50 fish were caught during one pass. More were caught during a second pass. CPW staff were thrilled to see the fish were still in the region, even if not at the same population of previous years.
“Here we are seeing fewer numbers, but there are still fish,” Battige said.
Battige said the Poudre River is typically not stocked with trout. The ecosystem has long thrived on its own even after natural disasters. The fish have historically repopulated and redistributed along the river without human intervention.
Battige said he was hopeful the fish would soon make their way toward the Kelly Flats area, repopulating that region.
“So there are fish here that will eventually re-filter downstream and reseed the lower populations,” Battige said.
The fish that are caught in the electrofishing process are weighed, measured, listed for species and then returned to the same waters.
Now, with stats in-hand, CPW will weigh their options for the future. Either let the river bounce back on its own, or try and shock the system by stocking the river with fish.
Natural resources experts who surveyed the fire’s impacts on the watershed, which millions rely on for drinking and irrigation water, believed the Cameron Peak Fire will have impacts on the Poudre River for at least 10 years.
CPW said they are hopeful the wildlife will bounce back at a quicker rate, but that is yet to be determined.
“It will come back with time. It is hard to say how long those impacts will be,” Battige said.