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Gazette Premium Content Severy Creek Trail, closed to protect fish in '99, may re-open

R. SCOTT RAPPOLD Updated: March 18, 2010 at 12:00 am

The Severy Creek Trail on Pikes Peak Trail has been closed so long most hikers have probably never heard of it.

It stretches from just below the Crow Gulch pull-off on the Pikes Peak Highway through pine forests and aspen groves, past waterfalls and rock formations, and ends at Elk Park at 11,900 feet on the peak’s north flank - 3.5 miles of scenery few hikers have seen legally in 11 years.

The U.S. Forest Service may re-open the trail as early as summer 2011. It has been closed since 1999 to protect a small population of greenback cutthroat trout, a fish so rare it was once thought to be extinct. While reopening has been proposed before, most recently in 2006 (it was scheduled but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service objected), this time all agencies appear on board for letting hikers stroll along the creek.

Last month, the Colorado Division of Wildlife informed the Forest Service it no longer considers public use of the trail a threat to the 100 to 500 greenback cutthroat trout in Severy Creek.

“Our understanding of genetics is evolving and has evolved over the years,” said DOW senior aquatic biologist Doug Krieger. “With that, the value of Severy Creek and the uniqueness of that population has kind changed with some information.”

Greenback cutthroat trout have been decimated throughout the West by disease and competition from other imported trout species. The fish in Severy Creek were discovered in 1999 by an off-duty biologist hiking, and the trail was closed because they were thought to be a unique population.

But testing since has shown they are genetically similar to other isolated populations – still federally protected and listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, but not unique.

Plus, biologists have determined the fish are not at-risk for whirling disease, which has killed the fish off in many places, because the spores that cause it have not been found in the creek. While a decade ago experts believed humans and dogs could import that spore by using the trail, Krieger said biologists no longer fear that possibility.

And he said recent improvements to the trail by the Forest Service, including three new foot bridges built in anticipation of the eventual trail re-opening, means the risk of humans entering the cold, steep-flowing creek is low.

This time around, the Fish and Wildlife Service is not concerned about the trail re-opening, said agency spokeswoman Diane Katzenberger.

Brent Botts, district ranger for Pike National Forest, said the trail could be re-opened with the stroke of a pen, lifting the closure order. But don’t expect to hike it this summer.

The trail is overgrown and some segments need to be realigned, and officials need to find a place for hikers to park at the lower trailhead, he said. And the agency has no money set aside in this year’s budget for the work.

“Maybe by this time next summer, we’ll be at a place where we can look at reopening it,” he said.

Fishing, however, will continue to be banned.

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