In New Mexico, Gila trout return — thanks in part to devastating fire
Wear and tear on boot soles and a helicopter — that’s what it took to get 1,033 Gila trout safely placed in the remote headwaters of Mineral Creek in the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico.
Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working with its partner agencies, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the U.S. Forest Service, released two age classes of Gila trout into Mineral Creek ranging up to a foot long. The rare yellow trout were spawned, hatched and raised in captivity in 2015 and 2016 at the USFWS’s Mora National Fish Hatchery.
The 1,033 trout traveled by truck eight hours to meet a helicopter at the Gila National Forest’s Glenwood Ranger Station. The aircraft made multiple flights carrying an aerated tank at the end of a long-line, each time full of Gila trout. Biologists from the three agencies had hiked in several miles in the rugged country to meet the trout and place them in the cool, shaded runs and pools of Mineral Creek.
Mineral Creek is tributary to the San Francisco River near Alma, New Mexico. Streams in this watershed harbor one of five known relict genetic lineages of Gila trout. The species lives only in New Mexico and Arizona along the Mogollon Rim, an area of conservation emphasis for the USFWS. So the release is a large step forward in conserving Gila trout, said Andy Dean, lead Gila trout biologist with the USFWS’s New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, based in Albuquerque.
Mineral Creek came to the attention of biologists as a candidate stream to receive Gila trout following the massive Whitewater-Baldy Fire of 2012. Destructive as it was, the forest fire made Mineral Creek suitable for Gila trout. The fire burned in the headlands of the stream and summer rains washed a slurry of ash and debris down its course, removing unwanted competing non-native fishes. Though the mountain slopes and streamside vegetation are not fully stabilized post-fire, sufficient habitat exists to harbor Gila trout in Mineral Creek. With so few suitable streams available to repatriate Gila trout, biologists seized the opportunity.
The Gila trout is protected under the Endangered Species Act. The species was listed as endangered in 1973, and through conservation measures it was downlisted to threatened in 2006. A year later, select Gila trout populations were opened to angling for the first time in 50 years.