Trail closes to help protect trout
By DEB ACORD
The Casper Star-Tribune
Nov. 29, 2006
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- When Edwin James, the man credited with the first recorded climb of Pikes Peak, explored the mountain in July 1820, there were no official trails. The mountain was a wild place, home to bears, elk and mountain lions. Its highest hillsides were decorated with tiny alpine flowers. And its streams held a fish that had lived there long before explorers arrived.
Today, the mountain is still a wild place. Its forests and meadows are still home to elk, bears and mountain lions, and flowers still cling to the tundra. Sure, there have been changes -- a highway and a railroad route wind up the mountain. Every day, explorers climb established trails to the summit and around its base.
But that native fish -- a brightly colored greenback cutthroat trout -- still lives in the stream called Severy Creek.
It's a valuable link to the biological past of Colorado, which is why Severy Creek and a trail that crosses it were closed in 1999. The trail was set to reopen this fall, but officials charged with protecting the fish recently decided it wasn't worth the risk.
The greenback cutthroat has overcome many obstacles since Pike's time, says Doug Krieger, terrestrial wildlife biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "It almost didn't make it."
In the late 1800s, the fish, one of three native trout species in Colorado, began disappearing. With the swelling human population of the Front Range came mining, which caused runoff that affected water supplies, and farming, which diverted water.
The trout, which often grew as large as 4 to 9 pounds, was prized for eating and was harvested in large numbers, sometimes with explosives. And for the first time, this once-dominant species had to share its habitat with trout that settlers brought with them -- rainbow, brown and brook.
By the early 1900s, the greenback cutthroat had nearly disappeared. In 1937, the Colorado Museum of Natural History reported that the colorful fish was gone forever.
But in 1957, pure populations of greenback cutthroats were found near Boulder and in the Big Thompson River in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists began working on its comeback in other areas in the state. In 1973, the greenback cutthroat was listed as endangered under the new U.S. Endangered Species Act; six years later, it was doing well enough that it was downlisted to threatened.
But its future still wasn't secure. Then, in 1999, a chance discovery provided a glimmer of hope. An off-duty DOW biologist hiking on Pikes Peak noticed the distinctive fish in Severy Creek.
That discovery was important, Krieger said. "That population is indicative of pristine streams in Colorado. Those vestiges of what Colorado used to be are still important. The fish should be there."
Krieger calls the greenback cutthroat a "relic population."
The discovery of the Severy Creek population was celebrated, but DOW biologists knew they had to protect the fish not just from predators and anglers, but also from whirling disease.
Transmitted by parasitic spores, the disease that causes deformity, neurological damage and sometimes death had already spread through other trout populations throughout the state.
Its effects can be devastating -- in a tributary of Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming, for example, a spawning population of more than 10,000 Yellowstone cutthroat trout was eliminated by a severe whirling disease infection.
The disease is insidious -- the spores that carry it can live up to three decades, and they can be transported from one body of water to the next on a dog's fur, a hiker's pant leg, a mountain-bike tire.
"So we've been careful about how we manage Severy," Krieger said. "You don't want to move fish from a population that might have the disease to a new place that doesn't have it."
The DOW has tested brook trout in lower regions of Severy Creek and found them to be disease-free, so they are hopeful they can perpetuate the greenback cutthroat species, thought to number around 100 to 150.
"We can do it a couple of ways -- moving fertilized eggs to another location or moving the fish themselves," Krieger said.
But these fish have it made -- cold, clear water, pools that form in the decomposed granite, felled trees that create perfect waterfalls and hiding places. And now, there's no danger from anglers' fishing poles or hikers' dogs.
Is one fish worth the effort? Krieger thinks so.
"Sometimes I don't take the luxury of thinking about that. Working with federally listed species is our job. Since the Endangered Species Act was passed by Congress, we assume the majority of the people want to maintain species. They are important remnants of our past, and important indicators of the environment and of our future."
Commentary by Julie Smithson
Property Rights Research
(Note: The trail has actually been closed since 1999, and the decision has been made to keep it closed, ostensibly to "protect" one species of trout that may not even be "endangered," "threatened," etc. What actually is threatened and endangered is the freedom of people to visit the places their taxpayer dollars purchased. Freedom to travel to federal lands is being shut down based on just such flimsy, and probably false, excuses: "...spores ... can be transported from one body of water to the next on a dog's fur, a hiker's pant leg, a mountain-bike tire." The sin of omission is that such spores can -- and are -- also transported on the fur of any of a variety of wildlife, the bodies of birds that leave the water and fly somewhere else, the wind and weather, and so on. By not mentioning the other methods by which spores are moved, the inference is that everything related to people is the cause. Language Deception is also insidious, as guilty by what it doesn't mention as by what it does. While not readily apparent, this closure and the excuses given are related to "roadless," because "roadless" is synonymous with "publicless" or "peopleless." For a perfect illustration of this, please visit Wild & Free Pigs of the Okfen and read the short article.)