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A swimming success: Recovery efforts help bring back trout

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WHITERIVER, Ariz. - Apache trout, found nowhere else in the world except the streams and lakes of eastern Arizona's high country, were the first native fish to be placed on the federal Endangered Species List. Now, thanks to the diligent work of Apache tribal fisheries' personnel and a host of other players in a cooperative effort, these yellow-gold fish may become the first to be removed from that list.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe recognized more than 60 years ago that the only remaining pure populations of Apache trout lived in just a few streams on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. In 1955, all reservation streams thought to contain pure populations were closed to sport fishing and a federal, state and tribal recovery effort began.

''Initial conservation efforts were not enough,'' according to Bob David, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist and a project leader at the National Fish Hatchery Complex in Whiteriver. ''Apache trout were categorized as 'endangered' and became federally protected in 1973. And stayed endangered for a couple of years until stocking of hatchery-reared fingerlings resumed, recovery hopes brightened, and they were upgraded to the 'threatened' category.''

They've stayed ''threatened'' for a couple of decades while recovery efforts continued, but complete restoration of the species is now close at hand.

''We're still cleaning out some non-Native fish in some of our waterways before we re-stock with pure Apache trout and wait a couple of years to see about natural versus hatchery reproduction,'' said Tim Gatewood, tribal member and fisheries biologist with the tribal Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation Division. ''Barring any unexpected snags - if we stay on the fast track - de-listing of the 'threatened' category could come as early as 2010.''

Fish native to Arizona have had a long history of adapting to tough conditions, thriving in rivers that seasonally shriveled up into mud bogs or swelled and flooded their banks with water churned brown with silt. Dams blocked fish travel routes and stocked non-native fish competed with natives - and frequently won. More than half of the state's 36 native fish species are under federal protective listing.

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Apache trout, one of two natives found only in the waters of the White Mountains [the other is the Gila trout found in Arizona and New Mexico], were first noted in the late 1800s when they grew up to 24 inches long and weighed upwards of six pounds. This species was once so abundant that early inhabitants caught and salted them in large quantities each autumn to provide a protein source throughout winter months. Their numbers started declining in the late 19th century as grazing livestock and logging operations arrived.

Roughly 125,000 Apache trout are stocked annually in reservation streams and lakes with another million ''eyed'' eggs reared for stocking on Forest Service and nontribal lands. Habitat improvement is ongoing in a grass-roots project now showing success because of the cumulative human effort. Arizona Game and Fish Director Duane Shroufe is impressed that differences have been set aside for a common goal.

''Volunteers from a myriad of organizations indicate just what a partnership operation this has been,'' he said. ''Without this dedication, hours of manual labor, and dollar donations, we'd never be at the point we are now.''

''We appreciate the help of all the specific interest groups,'' Gatewood said. ''Tribal entities have worked alongside state Game and Fish, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife personnel and private organizations. There were times in the past where differences got in the way, but this program has brought us to a point where we work together much better.''

All Gatewood knows is that a steady course should lead to the goal.

''There have been times when the program has zoomed along rapidly and there have been other times when obstacles have slowed things down. But we continue to progress with forward movement to the betterment of our fish, our anglers and our people.''