Colorado: Backcountry Conservation Efforts
WETMORE, Colo. – On a recent cold October morning, a team of 20 aquatic biologists, other staff and volunteers from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service fanned out across five drainages in the rugged foothills of the Wet Mountains.
They split into six teams and bushwhacked up and down six miles, give or take, of the remote upper reaches of Newlin Creek and its four tributaries, following the creek beds as they snaked along treacherous cliffs, through jumbles of huge boulders and under fallen trees between Locke and Stull mountains.
The teams hiked for hours as the sun turned the day into short-sleeve weather, taxing some of the crew clad in rubber wading outfits and lugging 30-pound Electrofisher units on their backs.
The Electrofishers were needed to test the waters of each tributary for the presence of fish, especially any of the genetically unique cutthroat trout that had been rescued from the massive 2016 Hayden Creek wildfire.
At the time, CPW biologists ducked behind fire lines and rescued 194 of these fish from the South Prong of Hayden Creek. Of the total, 158 were taken to a CPW hatchery near Gunnison and placed in isolation. The other 36 were released in Newlin Creek in hopes they would reproduce naturally.
Hundreds more of these genetically unique fish were left behind in Hayden Creek with hopes they would survive. But monsoon rains later inundated the stream with debris, ash and sediment, leaving little hope the remaining cutthroats survived.
That knowledge gave special importance to the Newlin fish survey. Anywhere that trickles of water pooled enough to offer fish habitat, the CPW/USFS teams stopped and utilized the electrofishing units in hopes of catching a few of the 36 fish that were released.
They repeated the process dozens of times as they thrashed through the brush, scrambled over rocks, under felled trees and past caves and piles of bones from predator kills. At the end of a 10-hour marathon fish survey, the results were less than what they had hoped for: biologists were unsuccessful in locating any of the introduced fish.
But Josh Nehring, senior aquatic biologist for CPW's Southeast Region, said the day was far from a wasted effort. In fact, it was a pretty typical day in the life of CPW biologists who are on the front lines of the agency's efforts to perpetuate the wildlife of Colorado.
"We came to see if we can find any of the Hayden cutthroat," Nehring said. "We wanted to see how they were doing. And we wanted to assess Newlin Creek for potentially re-introducing more of those fish here in the future."
As with greenback cutthroat trout found in Bear Creek in Colorado Springs, CPW's goal is to reintroduce native fish their historic landscape. And if Hayden Creek is unable to support fish in coming years as it recovers from the wildfire, CPW biologists need to find other creeks where they might thrive.
"Newlin Creek is a fairly small stream that we've had cutthroat in for a number of years," Nehring said. "We presumed the upper portions of Newlin were fishless, but we needed to know definitively and assess the quality of the habitat. That's why today's fish survey was important. Now we know exactly what we've got in Newlin, if we decide we want to put more fish in it someday."
Similar surveys on creeks, lakes and rivers go on year-round by CPW biologists and interns as they take study the state's fish, assess the health of the various populations and decide whether to stock the waters. It's the rarely seen conservation grunt work that pays off in gold-medal streams and lakes and attracts anglers from around the world to Colorado.
And it doesn't matter if a grueling day of slogging through dense forests doesn't result in big numbers of fish. Assessing the habitat and documenting what is there, and what is not, will help guide wildlife management and conservation into the future.
"Our mission is to perpetuate the wildlife of the state and conserve the native populations," Nehring said. "That's what days like today are about. These native fish were here before man was. If man hadn't introduced rainbow trout, brown trout or brook trout – all these non-native fish – and altered their habitat, all these streams would be full of cutthroat.
"Unfortunately, they all out-compete the native cutthroat and some of them can mate with them diluting the uniqueness of these fish. I think it's our duty to protect the cutthroat and make sure they are around for future generations."
In coming months, Nehring and his team will assess other streams – hiking miles in the heat and cold – to search for new homes for the Hayden Creek cutthroat so they can get out of the hatchery and back in the wild where they belong.
Watch the fish survey work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SjhrQpwib4&feature=youtu.be