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Fifty shades of green 

A once-forsaken fish surfaces at the center of a war between environmentalists and nature-lovers

At first glance, the story of the greenback cutthroat trout seems sadly typical.

Olive-gold and speckled, with a white underbelly that turns sensuous red when it's spawning, the fish was once one in a handful of subspecies of cutthroat native to Colorado, and one of more than a dozen that swam streams, lakes and rivers across inland North America.

But like so many animals, from the Tasmanian wolf to the dodo, the greenback fell victim to the march of human progress — in this case mining pollution, agriculture, overfishing and takeover from nonnative trout introduced by the fishing industry. By the early 20th century, rainbow, brown and brook trout swam the waters that had once belonged to the greenback.

The greenback was declared extinct in 1937.

Normally, of course, this would end the tale. But for this fish, it was only a hiccup.

The greenback, actually, never disappeared. Instead, the fish made its home in Colorado's little-studied alpine streams.

"Rediscovered" in the 1950s, the greenback once again attracted human interest, becoming Colorado's state fish in 1994. It also was subject to more intervention, as scientists and government officials tried to save it through decades of breeding and conservation programs.

To be frank, it didn't work. In fact, just as efforts were beginning to show progress, a new study called into question all the assumptions on which the conservation work was based. Suddenly, it was unclear where the greenback had really come from. More disturbingly, it was unclear what made a greenback a greenback, or whether any of the fish being propagated in breeding programs were actually the threatened trout.

Then came the final blow. Last week, groundbreaking genetic testing revealed that in the wild, only about 750 true greenback trout still exist — and they all swim in the sparkling waters of Bear Creek, just southwest of Colorado Springs.

"There's some really interesting findings in this study, although some of them may be uncomfortable," Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic research scientist Kevin Rogers says. "I think they tell a really compelling story and it demonstrates how science works."

Indeed, the study is expected to forever change the way scientists work to conserve endangered and threatened species (see "Back from the dead"). But the news also created a new flashpoint in a long-running fight.

Bear Creek, at least where it runs through Jones Park, is not just a refuge for the greenback. It's a refuge, too, for local off-road motorcyclists (to say nothing of mountain bikers, hikers and other outdoor-recreation enthusiasts).

So, while scientists have worked away in their labs, trying to figure out how best to protect the fish, a hodgepodge of environmentalists, government employees, attorneys and motorcycle enthusiasts have been furiously debating who should have access to the trails that cross the creek.

Everyone, it seems, wants to do right by the greenback. But can man, machine and fish really coexist?

The road to hell ...

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Senior Aquatic Biologist Doug Krieger had spent 15 years trying to restore the greenback to its native habitat when Jessica Lynne Metcalf, an undergrad at the University of Georgia, undertook a study that would all but nullify his efforts.

It was 2000, and the paper, which even Metcalf had expected to be a bit of a yawn, was intended to better explore a well-known fact: That nonnative fish species introduced in Colorado had bred with greenback trout, dirtying the gene pool and hampering conservation efforts. Metcalf was interested in the greenback because it had been listed as endangered in 1973, and downgraded to threatened in '78.

At the time Metcalf was preparing her school paper, Krieger and a crew of government scientists, known as the Greenback Cutthroat Trout Recovery Team, were well on their way to restoring the fish to more than 20 self-sustaining locales, at which point the greenback was expected to be de-listed as a threatened species.

But when Metcalf began looking at the genetics of some of the "pure greenbacks," she discovered that many of the fish weren't greenbacks at all — they appeared to be Colorado River cutthroats. Her initial paper led to a more specific study, which she conducted with a team of other scientists and printed in the scientific journal Molecular Ecology in 2007.

"The error can be explained by the introduction of Colorado River cutthroat trout throughout the native range of greenback cutthroat trout in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by fish stocking activities," the abstract reads. In fact, according to Metcalf's examination of historical documents, by the time greenbacks were "rediscovered" in 1953, "more than 300 million cutthroat trout had been distributed across Colorado through state and federal hatchery programmes."

The upshot: "Our results suggest greenback cutthroat trout within its native range is at a higher risk of extinction than ever before despite conservation activities spanning more than two decades."

For scientists and environmentalists, who saw the greenback as a symbol of Western heritage, the study was a crushing blow. But tucked away in all the bad news was a surprising, and scientifically fascinating, tidbit. Of the four remaining populations of greenback, the one discovered to be swimming in four miles of Bear Creek in the 1990s was, well, not like the others.

Now, of all the places for a fish to ride out decades on the brink of extinction, Bear Creek seems unlikely. Though beautiful and largely pristine in its upper reaches, the Fountain Creek tributary has been denounced by scientists and experts as "fair to poor" trout habitat, with steep slopes, shallow waters and copious gravel.

Sediment, especially, is a problem because it fills pools where fish hide from predators and hunker down for the winter; smothers their eggs; and, in extreme cases, can make the stream so shallow that fish can no longer pass.

In 1994, researchers working with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service noticed that the Bear Creek fish appeared to be the threatened greenback. They also documented the "degraded" state of Bear Creek — and blamed it on the erosive force of motorcycles and mountain bikes. In light of the presence of the threatened fish, researcher J. Peter Gallagher advised that landowners re-examine their "management practices."

But 17 years later, when Gallagher (now with Manitou Springs-based Fin-Up Habitat Consultants, Inc.) was hired by the Forest Service to do a second study of Bear Creek, the area was still hopping. The scientist noticed motorcycles cutting through nonmotorized trails, and found evidence of motorcycles and mountain bikes on unauthorized social trails that were disruptive to the creek.

He also found a habitat that was in worse shape than in 1994, in nearly every measurable way. For one thing, there were no pools available along one stretch of stream. But Gallagher — who isn't currently willing to comment any further on his findings, citing pending litigation — didn't seem ready to pin all the creek's problems on motorcyclists this time around. He dedicated more text to discussing general problems, including a flood in April 1999, the 2002 drought, and "factors such as forest insects and climate change."

"In addition to the natural events described above," he wrote, "population growth, increased and changing recreation use, and other social/economic factors such as homelessness may be contributing factors to the current condition of the watershed."

Gallagher's research wasn't isolated. Erik Heikkenen, president of the Cheyenne Mountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting fish habitat, says his group has been involved in sampling Bear Creek and nearby Severy Creek, where recreation is banned, since 2002. Bear Creek has seen far more degradation than Severy, he notes.

Likewise, Krieger and others at the Colorado Division of Wildlife performed a limited-scope population study of Bear Creek's greenback in 2008 and again in 2011. The 2011 study found about 30 percent fewer fish than in 2008.

A woodland paradise

For a hiker, Trail 667 is tricky, full of loose rocks and deep gravel that slide underfoot.

Add two wheels and courage, however, and it's a narcotic rush. The world goes silent, and there is speed; the feeling of the body jolting underneath as the bike hits rocks, roots, and plunges over drops; the ever-present thumping of the heart, of fear coursing through the veins. The bike passes along thin trails past sheer cliffs, threatens to topple over itself on steep drops, narrowly escapes as a tree flies suddenly into view.

As noted by Ned Suesse, trail coordinator for the Colorado Motorcycle Trail Riders Association, there are about 13,000 registered off-road vehicles in El Paso County alone. But the Jones Park area is "the only singletrack that's open to motorcycles — the only challenging singletrack."

Getting to Jones' most-used trail system usually requires a long haul up Old Stage Road, and a rough ride up Forest Road 379. From there, it's easy to hook onto Trail 701 and head north before plummeting down Trail 667, often called "upper Captain Jack's" or "Buckhorn."

It was motorcycles, in all likelihood, that decades ago carved the steep, gravelly path of 667, which roars through the forest and joins a large system of motorized and nonmotorized trails including 668 ("Pipeline"), Ring the Peak Trail, 666 (Bear Creek Canyon), High Drive, Gold Camp Road, 665 (known as "Penrose" or "lower Captain Jack's"), the Chutes, and the trails of Stratton Open Space.

For mountain bikers and motorcyclists, this is a woodland amusement park.

The problem is that Trails 667 and 666 cross Bear Creek and its tributaries repeatedly, and follow its banks through sections. In some places, bridges keep bikes and people out of the creek, but some shallower crossings lack them. Likewise, sediment containment structures to keep gravel from choking the creek are scattered, and in many cases insufficient.

For this reason, an Arizona-based environmental nonprofit is saying that motorcycles should be banned from 667, 665, 668, 701, and another nearby trail, 720. In September, months after formally threatening to do so, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Forest Service and Pike and San Isabel National Forest Supervisor Jerri Marr (yes, that Jerri Marr, of Waldo Canyon Fire fame).

The Center demands immediate closure of the Bear Creek watershed to motorcycles, and is asking the courts to force the Forest Service to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the future of recreation in the Jones Park area.

The suit states that the Center, a 39,000-member nonprofit, has been working to preserve cutthroats since 2001, and specifically focused on the greenback starting in 2007. Center Attorney Tim Ream says Center leaders met with the Forest Service and officials from Colorado Springs Utilities — which owns the upper reaches of Jones Park — for months this summer and decided to sue when it became clear that the two landowners did not plan to immediately ban motorcycles from Jones.

"We looked at this area and said, 'Here's a very rare cutthroat trout,'" Ream says. " ... This area is being abused, and the abuse is coming from ORVs."

The suit states that the Forest Service never got approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service, as required by the Endangered Species Act, before sanctioning motorcycle use on Jones' trails. (The Forest Service claims to have worked closely with Fish and Wildlife on greenback recovery, but refused to comment specifically, citing pending litigation; Fish and Wildlife representatives also said they could not comment due to the suit.)

The Center lists many reasons in its "intent to sue" why motorcycles shouldn't be allowed, chiefly erosion. But it also claims that motorcycles increase the risk of fire, of the spread of a parasite called "whirling disease" that is deadly to fish, and the crushing of insects and plants that support trout.

Roundtable respect

Jones Park is the No Man's Land of the local forest. Colorado Springs Utilities long ago purchased the northern part to be used in the Springs' water system. (That's no longer feasible.) A middle section is Forest Service land. At the bottom, Bear Creek goes through city park land, though that stretch does not contain motorcycle trails. And since Bear Creek is home to a federally threatened species, it is also under the authority of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Then there are the other interested parties: The Colorado Motorcycle Trail Riders Association. The Rocky Mountain Field Institute. Medicine Wheel, the mountain biking advocacy group. Trout Unlimited. The Trails and Open Space Coalition.

Amazingly, these various groups have often been working together, and productively, for the benefit of the creek.

While Utilities' Patrice Lehermeier says more needs to be done, they've made improvements including bridges, sediment detention structures, revegetation, water bars and bank stabilization. Thus far, Lehermeier says the costs of "habitat improvements" to the area is $53,060 — most of which have been paid for via federal grants wrangled by group members. Another $144,788 worth of volunteer time has been donated, in regular installments: Workdays took place in August and September with another clean-up, on city land, planned for Oct. 6.

Some of the parties have also formed a roundtable in order to keep abreast of threats against the fish, to coordinate trail work across property lines, and to work on longer-term solutions.

But there are some tensions among Jones Park stakeholders, especially when it comes to how fast changes are happening. On June 14, the national, state, and local chapters of Trout Unlimited, along with Medicine Wheel and the Trail Riders sent a seven-page letter to Forest Service Supervisor Marr, urging her to "immediately close the Bear Creek watershed to any travel off designated routes and to dispersed camping." They also asked the Forest Service to begin relocating "portions of Trails 666, 667, and 701 away from Bear Creek," to put up signs alerting people to the presence of the fish, and to take other measures to "ensure conservation of Bear Creek, its watershed, and the threatened native cutthroat trout population it supports."

In short, they want a lot of what the Center for Biological Diversity wants.

But so far, they want nothing to do with the lawsuit.

For one thing, the roundtable believes Bear Creek's issues will be most efficiently addressed by the local process underway — not a lawsuit that they say will tie the hands of those who are trying to help. And there's evidence that approach is working. Notably, the Forest Service recently closed Bear Creek to camping and fires, and the city closed High Drive this summer to vehicle traffic due to erosion. The Forest Service also plans to initiate a watershed assessment this winter, a necessary step before a National Environmental Policy Act process, which it plans to pursue.

The roundtable's other issue with the Center, however, is that most members see banning motorcycles from otherwise open trails as a nonstarter — especially given the efforts and cooperation of the Trail Riders thus far.

As Suesse points out, since the 1990s off-road vehicles have paid a yearly permit fee to the state to care for trails. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars raised from permits has been spent on maintenance in the Jones area over the years. The Trail Riders have also spent countless man hours on volunteer trail-building events.

In a written response to the Center's intent to sue, Suesse wrote, "Motorized users have funded the majority of trail work on Captain Jacks trails for decades. They were the first to step up with funding when improvements were requested (bridges on motorized trails to prevent whirling disease, etc), they have spent a substantial amount on annual maintenance, and will continue to do so in the future. Closing the trail to motorized use will result in less trail maintenance than today."

Other members of the roundtable have thus far stood by the Trail Riders. The Forest Service and Utilities have refused to close their trails to motorcycles, saying that picking on a single user group is unjust.

Even the national and local Trout Unlimited groups have backed the motorcyclists. While the group's first priority is protecting fish and habitat, Aaron Kindle, Colorado Field Coordinator for national Trout Unlimited, notes that the group recently introduced a new initiative "Sportsman Ride Right," which is intended to help hunters and fishermen who use off-road vehicles be more conscientious of protecting animal habitats. In his opinion, the Trail Riders embody that vision — and therefore deserve access.

"[Jones] is one of the very few places they can ride a single-track trail like that on the Front Range, and that resonates with me, because all of us want to be able to have our opportunity," Kindle says.

None of this, however, has changed the mind of Center employees. Ream says he's quite confident that motorcycles are causing most of the harm to Bear Creek's trout habitat — and that mitigation efforts haven't erased the damage.

"The trail riders are cleaning up some of their mess, but they're not cleaning up all of their mess," he says, adding, "I'd rather they just didn't make the mess."

Where from here

It's likely, of course, that the greenback will eventually be listed as endangered, and that Jones Park will eventually undergo an overhaul to move trails away from the water. Less certain is how things will play out in the intervening years.

Come spring, scientists will use breed stock from Bear Creek's greenbacks to reintroduce the animal to protected sections of the South Platte. If the fish thrive, protecting Bear Creek could become slightly less critical.

Regardless, the studies aren't over for the greenback; far from it. Metcalf's genetic study will be paired with a meristic study — a study of defining physical traits — to determine if greenbacks and other cutthroats should be protected under the ESA, and if so, if they deserve to be listed as endangered. Krieger, who is currently working on the meristic study, says agencies and courts tend to believe subspecies must have defining characteristics other than genetics in order to achieve listing status. Given that cutthroats aren't usually distinguishable to the naked eye, that could play heavily into the greenback's fate.

Once the studies are complete, the Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct scientific reviews, and eventually decide the ESA status of the greenback. There's no timeline for the work, but it's been known to take years.

Concurrently, the Forest Service plans to begin studying Bear Creek with its watershed assessment over the winter, and its NEPA study would follow that. Such processes have also been known to take years.

The roundtable members, of course, want trails to stay open to all users while studies play out. To a certain extent, it seems loyalty plays into the stance.

"In Colorado Springs, we have this beautiful cooperation between groups that can be looked at across the country," Trout Unlimited's Heikkenen says. "Particularly in the American West, this is a big deal."

Thus far, Heikkenen notes, everyone has been able to give a little. Environmentalists like him came to understand how important the trail was to people like Suesse — a guy who rode the Dakar Rally in South America this year, and just wants a chance to enjoy his sport in his hometown. Suesse came to understand how important the fish was, and to embrace the idea of moving trails — even seeing a bright side in that motorcyclists could help design new ones.

The roundtable has also rested heavily on the assurances of Krieger, who thinks the fish will be just fine if things stay as they are for another couple years.

Krieger took part in those startling population studies, but isn't convinced the fish are in decline. The numbers, he says, are subject to big statistical error, and the fish he saw were fat and healthy, and reproducing every year.

He also declines to put much stock in other risks identified by the Center, arguing that many — the risk of fire, the spread of disease, the crushing of habitat — come with human contact, not just motorcycles. And he notes that Bear Creek all but lacks a special type of blood worm crucial to the reproduction of deadly whirling disease, meaning Bear Creek greenbacks are relatively safe from it.

As for the biggie — erosion — Krieger thinks Bear Creek's main problem is drought, which allows sediment to build up in stream beds. And that's a problem everywhere.

"This is not a population that is in any kind of imminent danger, for sure," Krieger says. "Which is, I think, the case [the Center] is trying to make."

But Ream isn't buying that argument. He thinks the studies speak for themselves, and now that it's clear that Bear Creek is the last refuge of the greenback, the Forest Service should immediately close Jones' trails to motorcycles. It could do so with a pen stroke.

"It's just kind of shocking to imagine that the Forest Service would do nothing," Ream says.

The Center may ask the courts to force the closure of Jones to motorcycles immediately. Or it may sue Utilities and the Forest Service later this year for other violations of the ESA.

For now, it appears that the Center will have to fight its battle alone. But that could change. If years pass with no change to Jones, the roundtable could see its bonds breaking. Heikkenen, for one, says he worries for the fish at the center of all this, if the situation remains stagnant.

"The last year and half, two years, I look at Pikes Peak and my gaze goes to the left a little bit, and I think, 'That's where Bear Creek is,'" he says. "That's where that endangered species is located that I'm fighting so hard to protect."

stanley@csindy.com

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