Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
FENTON LAKE – On a cool fall afternoon, Tony Jacobson feeds hundreds of wild Rio Grande cutthroat trout in large indoor pools. He checks the oxygen levels and temperature of the water. These are sensitive fish that must be healthy before they are released into wild streams.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish employee manages Seven Springs Hatchery near Fenton Lake. In 2001, it became the only state facility to house the species, which is known for its distinct red markings.
“We’re limited on space and water here, so we are careful not to have too many fish in one tank,” Jacobson said. “The fish are released into the wild when they’re about 2 inches long. Then they take off and do their own thing.”
Rio Grande cutthroat trout thrive in clear, cold, high-altitude streams.
But habitat for the state fish of New Mexico is in jeopardy because of non-native trout species, wildfires and higher water temperatures. The fish occupies only 10% of its historic range in New Mexico and Colorado, according to the Western Native Trout Initiative.
Debate continues over whether federal protection can reverse the decline in population.
“By putting the fish on the endangered species list, it gives us the opportunity to restore the trout and its habitat,” said Michael Robinson, advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to do it for the trout, do it for the streams and do it for the surrounding forests.”
The center sued after U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s 2014 decision not to list the trout under the Endangered Species Act.
In September, federal Judge Marcia Krieger ruled that Fish and Wildlife needed to further explain its criteria for the decision. Krieger ordered the agency to reconsider listing the trout.
State agencies and conservation groups work to boost wild trout numbers even while the federal endangered status remains up in the air. The Forest Service lists the trout as a “species of conservation concern” at the state level.
Game and Fish stocks up to 500,000 Rio Grande cutthroat trout a year for restoration and recreation purposes.
Seven Springs sources fish eggs from the wild to incubate and grow at the hatchery. Kirk Patten, fisheries chief for New Mexico Game and Fish, said that strategy helps the state build a stock of native trout.
“This breed stock is diverse and not domesticated,” Patten said. “We’ve proven that this fish can be recovered and thrive in its natural habitat. Our goal is that our stock is ready to be wild fish.”
Non-native trout species compete for food and habitat with the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Their numbers have gone up as the native fish are driven out.
Jacobson and Patten said the native trout’s ideal habitat is clean, cold, shaded water with a network of pools and plenty of small insects for food.
To stock trout in streams deep in the wilderness, state employees and volunteers place the fish in bags of water, provide an air source, pack on ice, then trek to the headwaters with backpacks or on horseback.
Wildfires can leave streams buried in sediment or exposed to harsh sunlight. But fire also wipes out non-native fish, giving state agencies the chance to start from scratch and create habitat for Rio Grande cutthroat trout.
“When we restore fish into those areas that were burned by wildfires such as the Los Conchas Fire, we look for a natural barrier like a waterfall that will keep out non-native trout,” said Game and Fish spokesperson Tristanna Bickford. “That helps us keep the Rio Grande cutthroat genetics pure.”
In 2013, New Mexico and Colorado renewed a Rio Grande cutthroat trout conservation agreement for state agencies, tribes and conservation groups. The plan includes a 10-year strategy with projects that address threats and restore habitat.
Fish and Wildlife has identified 122 genetically pure populations of the fish in New Mexico and Colorado. The agency used best- and worst-case scenarios to determine the future of the fish.
The 2014 Fish and Wildlife finding said the fish did not warrant federal endangered or threatened status because the “Rio Grande cutthroat trout is not in danger of extinction throughout its range, nor is it likely to become so in the foreseeable future.”
Some environmental groups argue the states’ voluntary conservation plans are not enough to protect the trout. Mining, irrigation, logging, grazing and lack of stream connectivity can also harm trout habitat.
“We’re happy for efforts that have been made, like relocating fish after wildfires, but we need an ambitious federal approach,” Robinson said. “Livestock grazing in high-mountain areas would likely have to change because it is degrading habitat. It’s never easy to restore a species.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.