Helena, Mont. — About 1,000 Yellowstone cutthroat trout, feared in jeopardy from the aftereffects of a major Montana wildfire, are being captured and moved temporarily to streams not threatened by fire damage.
The cutthroat could vanish from two Yellowstone River tributaries at risk from last summer’s Derby Mountain fire, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said. It anticipates that melting snow, rushing down slopes denuded by fire, will carry too much ash and soil into the streams next spring, perhaps smothering cutthroat, clogging gravel where they spawn and reducing the flies and aquatic insects theyeat.
The state agency is preparing to move Yellowstone cutthroat, perhaps 1,000 or more, from two Upper Deer Creek and Lower Deer Creek, which flow through the area burned by the roughly 200,000-acre Derby Mountain fire. The two streams are south of Big Timber in south-central Montana.
They will be flown some 30 miles southeast, to several streams away from the scorched land.
The relocation needs to be completed this month because winter is coming, and capturing and moving fish in cold, icy conditions is difficult, Fish, Wildlife and Parks said.
The fish in the two streams buttress the dwindling populations of genetically pure Yellowstone cutthroat. They will be returned to the creeks after the fish habitat has stabilized. That could take five years, according a Fish, Wildlife and Parks environmental assessment.
Last week, agency employees began moving brook and brown trout from streams targeted to receive Yellowstone cutthroat, to make room for the incoming fish.
“We hope to reduce the competition for food and space so (Yellowstone cutthroat) will survive until some of the vegetation grows back and the stream habitat recovers,” Jim Darling, regional fisheries manager for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Billings, said Monday.
With Yellowstone cutthroat populations in decline, the fish was proposed for federal listing as a threatened species, status the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied in 2001. Declines have been attributed to the deterioration of habitat, competition with nonnative fish, disease and excessive fishing.
Montana categorizes Yellowstone cutthroat as a “species of special concern” and has programs intended to protect them.
Genetically pure Yellowstone throat occupy probably less than 10 percent of their historic range, said Scott Bosse of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a leading preservation advocate. Bosse commended Fish, Wildlife and Parks for the project to move fish out of the fire area.
“Desperate situations call for desperate measures, and this is a desperate situation,” Bosse said. “We think we owe it to future generations to do everything we can to save these fish.”
The Derby Mountain fire did not appear to have any immediate, significant effect on fish, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks. But because of the fire’s extent and severity, the steepness of the terrain and the nature of the soils, scientists have predicted that up to 19 tons of sediment per acre of land could slide into the streams.