The Hayden Pass fire has burned over a creek in the Sangre De Cristo wilderness, and a fish is feared to be extinct.

A 3-mile stretch of Hayden Creek's south prong has been home to a thriving habitat of cutthroat trout protected by the Endangered Species Act, said Greg Policky, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife fish biologist who for years has worked with the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the species. 

The family is "one of a kind," he said, related to the greenbacks with the same tiny appearance, but with DNA not known to be in any fish anywhere else.

They are more numerous than the only known pure greenback species found in the Bear Creek Watershed, a species the Forest Service plans to protect by altering nearby roads and trails. But these Hayden Creek cutthroat are similarly important, Policky said.

"There's no other cutthroat population that shares their genetics, and when they're gone, they're gone," he said. "We're hoping they're not gone."

The latest population survey from 2014 showed that the fish were self-sustaining, with five age groups represented. A barrier was built in 2003 at the creek's confluence to prevent other fish from entering the habitat, Policky said, and two years later, a reclamation project removed some brown trout within the cutthroat's population. There were more efforts in the following years, the biologist said, and surveys revealed steady growth. Policky estimated the population was about 2,000 today.

"Prior to all that work, they were barely hanging on," Policky said. "Prior to this fire, they were doing very well."

Since a lightning strike west of the creek Friday, the Hayden Pass fire has raged over nearly 13,000 acres, officials said Wednesday.

In cases of wildfires, fish typically save themselves by swimming up or downstream. It's possible the cutthroats managed to escape by passing their protective barrier, Policky said. In that case, they could be lost from the population forever, unless they were placed in an isolated hatchery.

That could be one approach to rescuing the species, if rescuing is found to be an option. If the fish survived the heat of the flames, they would remain under the threat of ash and sediment. Policky said specialists will assess the creek when the area is safe.

Policky said the closest known genetic twin to the at-risk cutthroat was specimen kept by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History - trout collected by the ichthyologist David Starr Jordan in 1889 at Twin Lakes. There are only theories as to how the cutthroat came to be in Hayden Creek: either they were translocated at some point or have persisted there for thousands of years.

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Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

Seth is a features writer at The Gazette, covering the outdoors and the people and places that make Colorado colorful.

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