By Tina Mitchell
In July, 2016, a lightning strike sparked the Hayden Pass Fire in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Within days, it had exploded into a 26-square-mile conflagration that forced area residents to evacuate. As they prepared to head out, firefighters raced in. Following close behind, a team of more than 30 specially trained wildlife staff and volunteers had one goal in mind – to save a fish from this fire. Not just any fish, but a genetically unique subspecies of greenback cutthroat trout found only in the South Prong of Hayden Creek, near Coaldale.
When they arrived at the lowest mile of the creek, the team found decent conditions. The fish were going about their ordinary pursuits. But for Greg Policky, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) aquatic biologist heading the rescue effort, the biggest concern wasn’t necessarily the fire itself but the potential after-effects such as flash flooding and sediments or ash inundating the stream. By the end of the day, the wildlife team had removed 196 greenbacks from the South Prong. The Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery, between Gunnison and Crested Butte, took 158 of the fish. The remainder were released in Newlin Creek, a small stream in the Wet Mountains south of Cañon City. The team also left several hundred fish in the South Prong, hoping that any subsequent monsoon rains would spare the drainage so that these remaining fish could survive in their natural habitat.
Why put so much effort into the South Prong greenback cutthroat trout? Once widespread in the Arkansas and South Platte river drainages along the Front Range from Wyoming to New Mexico, the greenback subspecies of the cutthroat trout currently inhabits less than one percent of its historic range. Focusing on this one of the four subspecies of cutthroat trout found in Colorado, extensive genetic work in 2012 revealed that this native cutthroat subspecies now existed only in a four-mile stretch of a single stream – Bear Creek, along the eastern flank of Pikes Peak. This same genetic work revealed another surprise. The greenbacks in the South Prong of Hayden Creek – and now in the Roaring Judy hatchery and Newlin Creek – contain genes found in no other living fish. In fact, their genes match only two museum specimens in the Smithsonian Institution, collected in 1889 by ichthyologist David Starr Jordan from Twin Lakes, near Leadville. (See this column in the November, 2016, archive of Colorado Central at www.coloradocentralmagazine.com for more background on this subspecies.)