About 2,000 rare Hayden Creek cutthroat trout took a ride in a mule train July 1 to their new home in the upper reaches of Cottonwood Creek.
The 4-inch fish, packed in pressurized steel canisters pumping oxygen into the water, are descendants of 158 trout rescued by Colorado Parks and Wildlife from the Hayden Pass Fire in 2016, which threatened to wipe out the only known population still in existence.
The trek by mule was part of CPW’s effort to restore the species to several streams within the Arkansas Basin to ensure their unique cutthroat genes survive, a press release stated.
The July 1 trip involved Justin Krall, a CPW district wildlife manager in Westcliffe, Jeff Outhier of the U.S. Forest Service, CPW aquatic biologists, four mules and dozens of CPW, Forest Service and Trout Unlimited volunteers.
The group hauled bags of fish about 6 miles up a steep trail and deposited the cutthroats at various points upstream.
CPW officials said they went to extremes to get the cutthroats into the creek because they are very special fish. They contain genetic markers matching museum specimens collected by early explorers. In 1889, ichthyologist David Starr Jordan collected a pair of trout specimens from Twin Lakes near Leadville. Today those specimens are at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
The Hayden Creek cutthroat trout are the only known modern fish to share their genetics, CPW reported.
As the 2016 fire burned near Coaldale, aquatic biologists and staff from CPW and the Forest Service crossed fire lines to rescue the trout before monsoon rains could flush the creek with choking sediment.
CPW surveys of Hayden Creek after the fire and subsequent ash flows didn’t find a single survivor.
The fish they rescued were taken to the Roaring Judy Hatchery isolation facility near Crested Butte and spawned each of the following springs. Now CPW is stocking the offspring near the cutthroats’ original home.
“We are looking at several streams in the Arkansas Basin where these fish could be introduced,” Josh Nehring, CPW senior aquatic biologist, said. “Spreading them across the region makes them less vulnerable to extinction due to an isolated catastrophic fire or flood event.
“Restoring these unique fish is a key first step to preserving these unique genes and ensuring we continue to have them on the landscape.”