Native wild trout in the west have a long history of adapting to tough conditions, from melting glaciers and massive flooding centuries ago, to contemporary rivers that seasonally dwindle to mud bogs or churn brown with floodwaters.
Through these evolutionary convolutions New Mexico’s Gila trout, native to headwaters of the Gila River and smaller streams in wilderness areas, have managed to adapt and survive in tough conditions.
“These are wild fish, aggressive, with an innate instinct for survival,” said Jim Brooks, project leader of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s New Mexico Conservation Office in Albuquerque.
But that instinct may be no match for the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. Reintroduced in 2011 into these waters, the Gila trout now face possible habitat destruction from the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, which has burned at least 296,980 acres (more than 460 square miles) and was 87 percent contained as of June 19, according to the most recent update on InciWeb. Even if the trout survive the conflagration itself, there looms the potential for devastating post-fire flooding that could choke their home streams with ash and debris and wipe them out.
“I saw a 20,000-acre fire in this same area in 2002, only half of which was severely burned—and what didn’t burn then, has burned now,” Brooks told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The earlier fire was not nearly as large or destructive as the Whitewater-Baldy blaze has been, and that earlier area is just now starting to recover, so any streams’ returning to healthy conditions here may be decades away. Everything is burnt to a crisp in the river drainages that hold trout in the Upper West Fork and Whiskey Creek.”
And rain could compound the problem, not fix it.
“We’re at a wait-and-see point as to what will happen when it starts to rain because every drop of water will run off, and everything loose on the surface—from ash and soot to truck-sized boulders—will roll downhill, scraping everything clean and ruining habitat while suffocating remaining fish populations,” Brooks said. “Although it is a part of nature, it’s a pretty brutal process.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, working with partners from the U.S. Forest Service, New Mexico Game & Fish, and the Trout Unlimited sportsman’s group, is racing against the clock to save as many of the genetically distinct populations of the threatened trout species as possible.
Last week, biologists backpacked into the still-smoldering wilderness to electroshock the shell-shocked Gila trout, place them in transport buckets for a helicopter ride out of the forest and into a tanker truck for an ensuing eight-hour ride to their latest new home at the Mora National Fish Hatchery.
“We took in nearly 350 Gila trout from two creeks,” said hatchery manager Jeff Powell, “and depending on how long it takes for the streams to become healthy again, these fish could end up here forever as part of our brood-stock management program.”
As tough as these trout are in the wild, they do have preferences, and the hatchery has tried to accommodate those by building naturalistic rearing pens.
“We’ve lined our hatchery tanks with rocks and simulated pools and riffles just like a natural stream,” Powell said. “These Gila transplants will even have natural roommates, Sonoran desert suckers, that will help clean the tanks. It’ll be like a five-star hotel.”
The hatchery anticipates more arrivals, as the Gila Trout Recovery Team plans additional recovery forays in the weeks ahead.
“Even though fire conditions have not allowed us to visit the headwaters yet, we’re 99 percent certain we’re going to lose Whiskey Creek trout waters,” said Brooks. “I’ll be busy spending the rest of my summer at Continental Divide elevations riding a mule saddled with fish-carrying panniers and visiting small backwoods brooks evacuating more trout, as well as other species like spike dace and loach minnows, trying to save them from becoming flood fatalities.”
In addition to the humanitarian aspects of this life-saving project, Gila trout are important as remnants of epochs past, native to the more remote high country reaches of the Gila River drainage where they were discovered in the 1800s. By the early 1970s, loss of their 600 miles of stream playground and competition from non-native species had reduced their population drastically enough to get them added to the federal Endangered Species List and protected under the New Mexico Wildlife Conservation Act. After years of public-private rehabilitation and restoration efforts, the fish’s status was downgraded to threatened status, where they remain today.
Threatened has become a way of life for these swimming expressions of antiquity that now must live temporarily in captivity while awaiting a return to wild waters.