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‘Halfway house’ for finned fire refugees

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Angela James has built a jury-rigged model of Whiskey Creek, a temporary Albuquerque home for Gila trout after the real Whiskey Creek burned in last year’s Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Angela James has built a jury-rigged model of Whiskey Creek, a temporary Albuquerque home for Gila trout after the real Whiskey Creek burned in last year’s Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)

Angela James’ fish tanks don’t look much like Whiskey Creek.

But for 68 imperiled Gila trout, the tanks in a northeast Albuquerque warehouse will have to do for now. After last year’s Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in the mountains of southwestern New Mexico, Whiskey Creek itself doesn’t look much like Whiskey Creek anymore.

“I refer to it as a halfway house,” said James, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as she prepared a breakfast of frozen bloodworms for her guests.

In a world where we hear most often of threatened species pushed toward extinction, the Gila trout were a bright spot. Found only in streams in the arid mountains of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, the fish were officially declared “threatened” in 1967. But efforts to restore habitat, remove invasive competitors and return the fish to their native streams were bearing fruit.

“We were on our way to putting this fish into a situation where it was successful,” said Jim Brooks, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service who has worked with the Gila trout for more than three decades.

To say the Whitewater-Baldy fire was a setback is an understatement.

Started by lightning last May, Whitewater-Baldy exploded a week later when hot, dry winds fueled a firestorm. Much of the 297,845 acres that burned in what became New Mexico’s largest recorded wildfire burned at lower intensity, what experts call a healthy fire. But Whiskey Creek was in the heart of the fire zone, where the blaze burned the hottest.

Not all the fish creeks burned, and some native Gila trout remain in the mountainous region. But Whiskey Creek and neighboring drainages, central to efforts to create a self-sustaining permanent population of Gila trout, were devastated.

Brooks’ report on his trip shortly after the fire burned the watershed is stark. “Whiskey Creek was burned throughout intensively,” he wrote in a late June memo to his supervisors. “We observed numerous elk and deer that obviously died during the fire. No vegetation was unburned.”

In the creek itself, the Gila trout had survived. But without an ecosystem around them to support them, and with the risk of catastrophic post-fire flooding, the scientists knew the trout’s days were numbered unless something was done.

The rescue mission that followed is an epic tale – packing heavy equipment and fish tanks by mule 12 miles into the backcountry, hauling the fish to the nearest safe helicopter landing zone, flying the rescued fish to a trailhead where James waited to truck them back to their new Albuquerque home.

The fish tanks were already there, in the warehouse attached to the offices of the federal agency’s New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, where Gila trout work has been done for years.

But turning them into a long-term halfway house for the rescued fish has nevertheless taken some work.

“We’re trying to respect their wild nature,” Brooks said.

Nature is complicated, which makes duplicating it in a warehouse a complicated job.

The tanks were painted a brownish color to mimic the streams they came from, and James picked up gravel from Home Depot to duplicate the natural stream bottoms. The tanks are separated by small channels, with water flowing through to mimic what James called the “run-riffle-pool” habitat the fish evolved in.

The water is chilled now to match winter cooling, and sunlamps are on a timer to mimic day and night. With rocks, some pieces of submerged pipe and fake aquarium plants, James built hiding places for the fish. They love to hide.

“It’s been a challenge,” James said. “These guys have kept me on my toes.”

The long-term fate of the fish is still to be worked out. Genetic diversity is important for the long-term survival of the species. In all, fish from four distinct genetic lineages were rescued, and are being kept separate, both in Albuquerque and at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mora National Fish Hatchery in northeastern New Mexico. All of the Albuquerque fish are eventually headed for Mora, James said.

Not all of the forest’s watersheds burned, and in some areas other populations of Gila trout remain. But repopulating Whiskey Creek and the other hard-hit creeks faces an uncertain future because of the complete devastation of the fires and the long time it will likely take for the grasses, shrubs and trees to return the system to its pre-fire state.

“We’re looking at 80- to 200-year recovery in some of these drainages,” Brooks said.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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