COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — At 12,000 feet above sea level, not even snow, rain or a mix of both can stop a mission five years in the making.
Thousands of fish are now swimming free for the first time. These special cutthroat trout are different from any other fish in the state because of their unique genetics that date back to the 1800s.
They’re so special that when the Hayden Pass wildfire started burning in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in 2016, aquatic biologists hiked in behind the fire line to save them. Five years later, the descendants of the fish they saved are back in the Colorado mountains.
"It’s been a long journey for these fish," said Cory Noble, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). "It’s been kind of a crazy ride since the fire."
On Tuesday, the fish were packed up in bags and loaded into backpacks on their way to their new home on Pikes Peak.
To understand why so many people would hike up the side of a mountain in a storm to release some fish, you have to go back to 2016 and a day that was much warmer.
"We’ve put a lot of work into these fish," Noble said. "We’ve been raising these in the hatchery for five years now. We went up and rescued them from an active wildfire area."
Janelle Valladares is a fisheries biologist with the Pike-San Isabel National Forest. When the Hayden Pass wildfire started in 2016, she went into the fire with a team from the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to rescue some of the rarest fish in Colorado.
"They are unique in the literal sense of the word. We use unique a lot, but unique means one-of-a-kind, and these fish are absolutely one of a kind," Valladares said. "We had those electric shockers that stunned the fish so that we could scoop them up and get them out of there before their habitat actually burned."
After the team rescued nearly 200 fish from the wildfire, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spawned the fish to save the genetically unique species.
"They are very special," Noble said. "They are different from any other population of fish we have in the state. They have those unique genetics."
Colorado Parks and Wildlife chose the stream on Pikes Peak because there are currently no other fish in that area. They want to make sure these fish have the best chance at surviving while keeping their genetics pure.
For a journey that started in fire, it ends on a rainy day with a new home.
"If we had not gotten them out of there, we would have lost those genetics forever," Valladares said.
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