Rediscovery of lost cutthroat species?

Colorado Parks and Wildlife recently announced ongoing efforts to save a unique species of cutthroat trout rescued from Hayden Creek near Canyon City, Colorado.  CPW biologists discovered the trout in 1996, but the discovery has not been promoted. 

A year ago the Hayden Creek area experienced a wildfire that threatened the entire population of cutthroats.  A team of biologists and volunteers went in ahead of approaching fire lines and netted 194 fish.  158 of the fish were placed in a captive breeding program, and the remaining 36 were released in a nearby drainage to breed naturally.  Soon after the fire passed through the area, seasonal monsoon rains washed significant amounts of mud and ash into the creek.  The debris smothered remaining insect life and spawning beds.  Since the fire, biologists have been unable to find a single trout in Hayden Creek.  

As of the date of the press announcement (6/23/2017), captive breeding efforts continue, and plans are underway to resurvey Hayden Creek for wild survivors this fall. 

So the question that remains is, are these cutthroat the legendary "yellowfin" cutthroats of twin lakes, Colorado?  In 1889 professor David Star Jordan visited Twin Lakes and collected specimens of a large species of cutthroat (up to 10 pounds) with bright golden yellow fins.  The two preserved specimens are stored at the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.  The subspecies was eventually named Oncorhynchus clarkii macdonaldi .  Yellowfins survived in Twin Lakes alongside greenback cutthroats as distinct, non-breeding populations until about 1903.  At this point non-native rainbows were introduced to the lake.  The greenbacks interbred with the rainbows to produce cutbows, and the yellowfins disappeared completely.  Though there have been periodic reports of living yellowfins for the past 100 years, none of these reports have ever been verified. 

While the CPW press release does not specifically call this Hayden Creek population "Yellowfins", it does mention David Star Jordan, and says that the genetics of the Hayden Creek cutthroats match those of the Smithsonian specimens.  Do they display the size and distinctive yellow fins?  Again the press release is silent on these points.  It could be possible however that the size and distinctive coloration only manifest when the fish live in suitable environments, i.e. Twin Lakes and not a small creek. 

It's exciting to think that the yellowfin may not be gone.  After all, it wouldn't be the first time a species of cutthroat came back from the dead. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife vs. Predators

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state agency that manages fish and wildlife in Colorado, recently decided to spend $4.5 million to kill black bears and mountain lions in two regions in the state in an attempt to increase the mule deer population.  The controversial plan has been examined and debated for more than a year.  Ecological studies were reviewed, biologists consulted, and the public were allowed to comment.  Conservation groups including the Sierra Club, the Humane Society, The Center For Biological Diversity, Cougar Fund and other groups all vocally came out against the plan, and a trio of Colorado State wildlife biologists Joel Berger, Kevin Crooks and Barry R. Noon, delivered a joint letter against the plan that read in part:

“CPW’s plans to test the effects of predator removal are not based on science, and run counter to prior scientific evidence published by CPW’s own researchers. We are concerned that CPW’s proposals are based on a narrow response to a vocal (and diminishing) minority of the general public focused on predator control as means to increase hunting opportunities".

The majority consensus of the experts was that the plan would be ineffective at best, and have far reaching and unpredictable consequences at worst.  Ultimately, the wildlife commissioners voted unanimously to proceed with the plan. 

Personally, this entire story is very disappointing to me.  So many groups here in the US, and internationally, are using new science and a better understanding of holistic ecology to try to rebuild ecosystems and create wildlife corridors.  Today we have such a better understanding of the important roll that large predators play in the health of any given environment.  Everything in any given ecoSYSTEM is connected.  If you remove one component, everything else is affected.  In this case, it's not just about the mountain lions and the deer, it's how each of those species influence all of the other species around them, and how each of those species influence those around them, etc.

With this decision, the cynical side of me wants to ask why we have scientists at all.  If we have these non-scientists making a decision based on money or politics or even their own opinion and rejecting the science, then what's the point?   

This isn't 1880...

 

Fall Greenbacks

Here are some shots of fall Greenback Cutthroats.  These were shot in Rocky Mountain National Park a few weeks ago.  Greenback Cutthroats, along with all other Western North American trout species, spawn in the spring.  Here in Northern Colorado, this typically means a couple of weeks on ether side of the fourth of July.  Not only do the fish have brighter colors during the spawn, but with other things on their minds, they tend to be more reckless, and are therefore, easier to approach to photograph.  (They're also easier to catch, but we'll leave a discussion of the morality of that to another time.  Looking at you Yellowstone's Fishing Bridge.)  Thus, most photographs of cutthroats are taken in the spring. 

The following shots were taken in the late fall, miles in the back country.  Rather than having sex on their minds, these fish were trying to fatten up as much as possible before winter.  In a typical year, the lake where these fish live would have already been frozen over by the date the photos were taken.  However, this was the year of the seemingly endless summer. 

This is one of my favorite underwater trout images. Notice how the surface is just starting to boil as the rising trout approaches the fly on the surface?

This is one of my favorite underwater trout images. Notice how the surface is just starting to boil as the rising trout approaches the fly on the surface?

A beautiful female greenback comes out of the shadows.

A beautiful female greenback comes out of the shadows.

Amazingly, colors like these are not just found during the spring spawn. 

Amazingly, colors like these are not just found during the spring spawn. 

Two new videos

I've added two new time lapse, (or is it timelapse?...time-lapse?) videos to the site.  The first shows Rocky Mountain National Park, and the other is Yellowstone.  They can both be seen here:

http://www.whughesstudio.com/motion/

 

Fall in the Rockies

We've had a pretty spectacular fall here in Northern Colorado this year.  The weather has been unusually warm and dry which gave the aspen leaves longer than usual to keep their colors. 

Here are a few landscape photos from the past few weeks.

Near Mills Lake in RMNP

Near Mills Lake in RMNP

Clearing fog above Glacier Gorge Junction.

Clearing fog above Glacier Gorge Junction.

Boards crossing a bog near Black Lake.

Boards crossing a bog near Black Lake.

Aspen reflected in Bear Lake.

Aspen reflected in Bear Lake.

Back-lit aspen near the Bierstadt Lake trail.

Back-lit aspen near the Bierstadt Lake trail.

Aspen.

Aspen.

Bear Lake road.

Bear Lake road.

The sky really is that color here sometimes.

The sky really is that color here sometimes.

Sometimes aspen are red too.

Sometimes aspen are red too.

Hallett Peak.

Hallett Peak.

First snow on Twin Owls near Estes Park.

First snow on Twin Owls near Estes Park.

Hollowell Park, off of the Bear Lake Road.

Hollowell Park, off of the Bear Lake Road.

Hollowell Park.

Hollowell Park.

Gorge Lakes

I was recently lucky enough to be invited by US Department of Fish and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist Chris Kennedy, to accompany him into the back country of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Chris specializes in greenback cutthroat trout, and spends a good portion of his summer doing field surveys of existing fish populations.  In late July, Chris, I and two other volunteers hiked into the Gorge Lakes of Rocky Mountain National Park to do a fish population survey in Arrowhead Lake. 

Biologist Chris Kennedy wades through willows above Arrowhead Lake in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.

Biologist Chris Kennedy wades through willows above Arrowhead Lake in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Gorge Lakes are some of the most difficult lakes in RMNP to reach.  There is no trail system that goes anywhere near them, so access requires miles of overland bush-whacking, above timberline and through extensive bogs.  Ironically, for all the difficulty in reaching them, once the lakes are reached, traffic can clearly be seen and heard on Trail Ridge Road, which is only a couple of miles away as the crow flies across Upper Forest Canyon. 

Miles of bogs had to be negotiated to reach the lakes.  Even with waterproof boots, after three days of this I was starting to develop trench-foot. 

Miles of bogs had to be negotiated to reach the lakes.  Even with waterproof boots, after three days of this I was starting to develop trench-foot. 

Once at Arrowhead Lake, Chris set gill nets at several locations around the lake to get an idea of the fish population, and if they are breeding or not.  Arrowhead is one of the coldest lakes in the park, and is right at the edge of cold and elevation tolerance of the greenback cutthroat.  The fish seem to be breeding, but not every year. 

Chris Kennedy uses a gill net to catch fish to estimate population and determine if the fish are reproducing. 

Chris Kennedy uses a gill net to catch fish to estimate population and determine if the fish are reproducing. 

The Gorge Lakes look so close and so inviting from Trail Ridge Road.  For a fisherman, the pull can be irresistible.  However, they are much farther than they seem, and the hike is very difficult.  Every year fishermen need to be rescued from the Gorge Lakes, and over the years, several people have died after becoming lost, or injured.  While the lakes are fairly pristine, without any of the trash, or "bootleg" trails found at other back country fishing sites, the lakes are in fact visited by fishermen.   For Arrowhead Lake especially, even though it gets very little fishing pressure, it contains relatively few fish, as it exists right at the edge of the greenback's cold tolerance. 

Mature greenback cutthroat trout in the inlet of Arrowhead Lake.

Mature greenback cutthroat trout in the inlet of Arrowhead Lake.

Tourist Season in RMNP

We're in the height of tourist season here in Estes Park.  Unlike say, Colorado ski towns like Vail or Breckenridge which have busy winters and summers, with slower shoulder seasons, Estes pretty much only has a summer tourist season.  Sure, there are some visitors to RMNP in the winter, (winter meaning from the end of elk/aspen season around the middle of October until Memorial day), they tend to be few and far between.  Winter visitors also tend to be of the "We're here to brush up on our cold weather camping and ski mountaineering skills before heading off on a Himalaya expedition" type, rather than the mom and dad with a van full of kids from Chicago, version that the local businesses really depend on.  "OK kids, who wants ice cream and a t-shirt with a picture of a howling wolf on it?"

As some people may know, I've been working on a long term photo project about the story of the greenback cutthroat trout.  The greenback is the Colorado state fish, and is a federally protected threatened species.  For many years in the 20th century, it was believed to be completely extinct until a small population was discovered.  This population was bred, and has been reintroduced to a very small percentage (like 5%) of its original native range.  There are only a hand full of drainages in the entire world that contain greenbacks, and almost all of them are within a few miles of Estes Park.  In addition to that, they are a stunningly beautiful fish, especially when in their spawning colors.  So, yeah, these are pretty special fish.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout in the outlet of Odessa Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout in the outlet of Odessa Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout in Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout in Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I've been spending quite a bit time in the back country in RMNP over the past few weeks photographing fish, as well as speaking with scientists about the species and the reintroduction efforts.  Yesterday I got up early and hiked in to Odessa Lake from the Bear Lake side.  Odessa is in a beautiful alpine valley with waterfalls on two sides.  The lake itself is just below timberline, and the outflow falls a few hundred feet over not-quite a mile before entering Fern Lake, probably the best known fly fishing lake in the park. 

The outlet of Odessa Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, looking west toward the lake and the Continental Divide.

The outlet of Odessa Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, looking west toward the lake and the Continental Divide.

There are signs like this at the trail heads in the area, as well as on the trail as it approaches every lake in the area. 

When I arrived at Odessa Lake, I was early enough that there was only one family there ahead of me, mom, dad and 5 kids.  All of the kids were under 12, and two of them appeared to be under 4.  My first thought as I sat down my pack to get a drink of water was "wow, those are little kids to be in here".  Odessa isn't a really difficult hike, but it's almost 5 miles and almost 2000 vertical feet no matter how you slice it. 

It was then that I noticed the dad and the older three boys wading around in the log jam at the outlet.  I didn't think too much of this at first.  Most trails reach lakes near their outlet, and it's the logical place for tired hikers to spread out on the logs and rocks.  It's not uncommon to see families splashing around enjoying a few minutes with their boots off.  Then I heard one of the boys say excitedly "What are we going to do with him if we get one?"  I then noticed that the dad was wielding what appeared to be a sharpened, 4 foot piece of aspen branch, and was running around stabbing it into the water like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway.  Well, I should say he was stabbing the water when he wasn't bashing at the water swinging his spear over his head like a club. 

You've got to be kidding me...

I'm normally not a confrontational kind of guy, but seriously dude?  I ran over and kind of yelled over the noise of the river, "Are you killing fish?!?"  I explained that these are a federally protected species, and the reason that you can see them so well to bash at them is that they are currently in the shallow creeks to spawn, and by the way, you're in a NATIONAL PARK.  The dad, dripping wet after having just fallen in (there is a little karma) and still holding his spear/club replied "oh, I'm sorry I didn't know.  I thought these were rainbows [trout] in here".  Yea, so I guess that explains it.  If they're just rainbows, bash away.  WTF?!?

By this time mom has come over to see what I'm accosting her husband about.  She thanks me for letting them know that these are not, in fact rainbows, but are greenback cutthroats.  She then went on to tell me that they had actually read about the greenbacks in the park news letter, and they wanted to be sure not to go fishing for them, since you know, they're endangered and all.  I remember very specifically that she used the word "fishing". 

To be fair, he did apologize, and appeared to stop what he was doing.  When I approached him, I really expected a full on "I'm going to do whatever the hell I damn well please" kind of situation. 

When you're out there, be respectful and know the rules.  I am by no means anti-fishing, I'm a fisherman myself, but there's a time and place for most things. 

 

Spring Snow

Last week we finally got a real snow storm here where my wife and I live in Glen Haven, near Estes Park, Colorado.  If you tell most people that you live in Colorado, they imagine waist deep snow from Labor Day until about the 4th of July.  This goes double if you tell them that you live at 7500 feet near Rocky Mountain National Park.  The truth of the matter though is that for most of this winter we only had snow on the ground on the north facing slopes. 

That's why I was so excited last week, when what was predicted to be a minor storm surprised everyone by dropping around 18 inches on us.  In Colorado most of the big snow falls on the "west slope" i.e. the west side of the continental divide.  Storms from the west have to rise up to get over the high mountains, and in doing so they drop most of their moisture on the west slope.  This is both why most people in Colorado live on the "front range", (the string of cities from Fort Collins in the North to Pueblo in the South), and why most Colorado ski areas are on the west side of the mountains. 

In the spring time, Colorado will occasionally have what is known as an "up-slope storm".  This is a storm that comes from the east, against prevailing winds.  With an up-slope storm, the process works in reverse.  As the moisture rises up the east side of the mountains, it fall out as snow.  Once when I lived in Denver it snowed 40 inches in two days in a good late season up-slope storm. 

Anyway, Brooke and I took the opportunity to finally be able to run around in snow shoes and get some wintry shots, since, you know, we live in the Rockies and all. 

John Fielder Workshop

John Fielder is known as one of the premier landscape photographers in Colorado.  His work can be found in galleries and private collections all over the mountain west.  Additionally, he has published numerous books of his photography. 

A few months ago over the Holidays, I had a few photographs displayed in the John Fielder Gallery in Denver https://www.johnfielder.com/gallery-location/ as an emerging artist.  Afterword John, being the awesome guy that he is, offered to let me attend one of his workshops for cost.  Last week, I attended his winter workshop in Steamboat Springs, CO.  Steamboat is known in Colorado for deep snow (so far this season, they've had 325 inches, that's over 27 feet of snow), and aspen trees. 

A winter landscape workshop, in a place with that much snow meant that the focus was on composition and design of the photos.  Between the aspen and the snow, often there was no color at all.

Barn near Steamboat Springs, CO

Barn near Steamboat Springs, CO

Aspen trees and shadows.

Aspen trees and shadows.

Florida Springs

Northern Florida has the highest concentration of freshwater springs in the world.  The region’s unique limestone geology and consistent rainfall have led to the formation of over 1,000 named springs.  Most are small, only pumping out a few gallons of water per minute, or even per hour.  Thirty three however are truly monsters.  These “first magnitude” springs consistently expel over 100 cubic feet of crystal clear water per second.  Not only is the beauty of the springs themselves breathtaking, but they also provide habitat for a variety of species that could not exist elsewhere. 

The springs and the associated aquifers, are the source of both the region’s various rivers and its water that is used for domestic and agricultural purposes.  Herein lies one of the major threats to Florida’s springs.  Ultimately, there is only a limited amount of water in the aquifer system.  Water that  is pumped out through a well, is water that is not available for the spring and therefore, the wildlife in the spring. 

The other most serious threat to the springs is pollution, primarily in the form of agricultural runoff from fertilizer and animal waste.  Organic chemicals filter into the aquifer, eventually making their way to the springs.  The higher levels of nutrients in the spring water leads to the growth of filamentous algae which smothers all other aquatic plants.  Eventually, the spring ecosystem collapses, and all that remains is a murky pool full of what amounts to pond scum unsuitable for much else.

A river cooter (Pseudemys concinna) swims in the Ichetucknee River. 

A river cooter (Pseudemys concinna) swims in the Ichetucknee River. 

A young West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus) feeding on eel grass.  Ichetucknee River.

A young West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus) feeding on eel grass.  Ichetucknee River.

An alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) rests just below the surface in Florida's Silver Glen Spring. 

An alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) rests just below the surface in Florida's Silver Glen Spring.