SHERIDAN — The area near the headwaters of Middle Redwater Creek is hardly extraordinary. Located in the Black Hills National Forest 10 miles north of Sundance, scraggly trees and brush surround shallow ponds and slow-moving streams.
In the scenic Black Hills, it seems unlikely the average hiker would make the trip for photos, and probably not to fish. But looks can be deceiving, as these defunct beaver ponds and marshy wetlands serve as one of the last frontiers for finescale dace — a small fish considered a species of greatest conservation need in the state.
That’s why Wyoming Game and Fish Department personnel in the Sheridan region headed to Middle Redwater Creek this fall to rehabilitate an area finescale dace call home.
Aquatic habitat biologist Travis Cundy coordinated with the U.S. Forest Service for the work, which involved raising the water surface elevation about 6 inches at the lower end of the wetland complex, stabilizing the developing head cut with sheet piling and rock and constructing a step pool series below the wetland to provide fish passage.
The most recent project dates back to work that started back in 2002. Cundy said he began working with the Black Hills National Forest more than a decade ago to transplant beavers to this section of Middle Redwater Creek. Beavers build dams that create shallow wetlands, perfect habitat for finescale dace.
“We actually put beaver in there and got them to take,” he explained. “They built a pond complex, but it only lasted about 10 years. The beaver in this case, where they set up house and home, they ran out of resources to feed themselves.”
Because the beavers left, the ponds started to deteriorate. This not only affected finescale dace, which were no longer in the immediate area, but also surrounding vegetation and deer, waterfowl and other wildlife.
After raising water levels and completing the project, Cundy and fisheries biologist Bill Bradshaw captured about 100 finescale dace downstream of the rehabilitated wetland and moved them into the newly created habitat in October.
The site will be monitored into the future because it holds particular importance for the persistence of finescale dace in Wyoming. While the small fish is found in abundance throughout much of the Midwest, the dace only live in the shallow ponds of Middle Redwater Creek and in another pond in Niobrara County near Lusk — and that’s it.
“They’re not endangered in the world at all, but they’re imperiled in Wyoming,” Bradshaw said. “Their habitat’s been disappearing over thousands of years.”
Although not a game species, WGFD personnel want to keep finescale dace on the Wyoming landscape. Sure, that’s the job of the Game and Fish, but the dace could hold other significance.
For one, Cundy explained, they’re an indicator. The shallow marshes finescale dace call home were once commonplace throughout the Rocky Mountains. Beavers were abundant and created habitat that benefitted dace and other wildlife.
But people eventually moved in, killing beavers, blowing up dams and redirecting water for human consumption and use. This transformed the environment of the region.
“If you’re seeing them go, it means there’s likely some overall problems with that particular habitat type,” Cundy said.
Aside from that, the finescale dace still hold an important place on the landscape if nothing else than the fact they are a “glacial relic.”
“Who knows, maybe the fine scale dace in the Redwater Creek drainage hold the secret to curing cancer,” Bradshaw said. “I’m being a little facetious, but that’s one rationale because most of our medicines come from the natural world.
“It’s our best efforts to keep a unique Wyoming species on the landscape,” he concluded.