Climate-fueled wildfires worsen danger for struggling fish
AMALIA, N.M. — Biologist Bryan Bakevich unscrewed the top of a plastic bucket and removed a Rio Grande cutthroat trout that squirmed from his grasp and plopped onto the grassy bank of Middle Ponil Creek.
“He wants to go home,” Bakevich said, easing the fish into the chilly, narrow stream – the final stop on a three-month, 750-mile odyssey for this cutthroat and 107 others plucked in June from another stream in mountainous northern New Mexico.
The state’s largest wildfire on record had roared perilously close to their previous home, torching trees and undergrowth on nearby slopes. Summer monsoon season was approaching, and heavy rains could sweep ashy muck into the creek, clogging fish gills and smothering gravel bottoms where they feed and spawn.
State and federal crews rushed to the rescue, using electrofishing gear to stun and net as many cutthroat as possible. They were trucked south to Las Cruces and kept in tanks at New Mexico State University until Middle Ponil Creek was readied to host them.
Today, wildlife agencies in the southwestern U.S. consider missions like this essential as climate change brings more frequent and hotter wildfires, fueled by prolonged drought and tree-killing bug infestations. Particularly vulnerable are Rio Grande cutthroat trout and gila trout – rare species found mostly in small, high-elevation streams.
“With every fire, more of their populations are being affected,” said Jill Wick, native fish program manager for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. “Their habitat is often gone, washed out of the creek. There’s no place they can hide and cool off. Their food is decimated as well.”
The danger is rising elsewhere. Tens of thousands of salmon, trout and other fish perished in August when a flash flood swept through a burn area in Northern California, sending a sludge plume into the Klamath River.
Trout numbers fell up to 80% in sections of Colorado’s Cache la Poudre River after floods and mudslides in summer 2021, a survey found. The biggest wildfire in state history had burned 326 square miles in that area the previous year.