Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Just a few days ago, Jill Wick was hiking mountain trails and splashing through the waters of Mineral Creek just east of the village of Alma in rugged Catron County.
For outdoors enthusiasts, that sounds like a dream vacation. For Wick, Gila trout biologist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, it’s just another day on the job – a job she loves.
“I like that no two days are the same and that I work in a beautiful place,” she said. “And I like doing something that I put a lot of value in. I believe in what I’m doing very strongly.”
What she is doing is attempting to restore the Gila trout, on the endangered list until 2006 and listed as threatened now, to 24 miles of Whitewater Creek and its tributaries in Catron County.
That’s the next step in an ongoing effort by Game and Fish, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-establish the Gila trout, a native fish, in New Mexico and Arizona waters.
“We have a recovery plan that guides their management and sets goals for that recovery,” Wick said. “That plan calls for establishing them in 168 miles of streams in New Mexico and Arizona.”
So far, the fish has been established in 62 miles of stream. Successful restoration of the Gila trout to the 24-mile stretch in Whitewater Creek and its tributaries would put the project more than halfway to the plan’s goal.
Dan Williams, Game and Fish spokesman, said the department has an obligation to restore native species and maintain habitat for them.
“Restoring Gila trout is to the benefit of all New Mexicans, especially to anglers who enjoy going out and catching them,” he said. “Plus, they’re just beautiful.”
The Gila trout is a pretty fish that has a yellow or coppery head and black spots and grows to an average length of 11.8 inches and a maximum length of 21.7 inches.
It is native to the tributaries of the Gila River in New Mexico and Arizona, but, by the late 1950s, fishing for Gila trout had been banned because both its numbers and its range had been seriously curtailed.
This was caused by competition and hybridization with non-native fish, such as rainbow trout, and because of the loss of habitat due to fires, human destruction, overgrazing by livestock and agricultural irrigation and diversion.
Wick and other recovery team members searched Mineral Creek for stray rainbow trout last week because Gila trout cannot be returned to a stream if nonnative fish such as rainbow and brook trout are present. Nonnative fish compete with the Gila for space and for food and feed on young Gila trout.
“And rainbow trout hybridize with the Gila trout so they are not Gila trout anymore,” Wick said.
No rainbows were found in Mineral Creek, so Wick said the creek will be stocked with Gila trout – likely in mid-April. It’ll be another step forward in the restoration project.
But there have been setbacks.
Wildfires, one of the causes of the Gila trout’s decline in the first half of the 20th century, took a severe toll on restored Gila trout populations a few years ago. The Whitewater-Baldy Fire, which burned nearly 300,000 acres of the Gila Wilderness in 2012, and the Silver Fire, which chewed through more than 138,000 acres of the Gila in 2013, killed a lot of fish.
“Eleven out of the 17 populations of Gila trout were within the burn areas of those two fires,” Wick said. “We lost eight of those populations. Ash from the fires get washed into the water, increasing the ammonia content of the water 200-fold. Ammonia is bad for fish, kills the fish. Which is why we see these complete killoffs in these streams.”
The recovery team was able to rescue some of the Gila trout before rains pushed ash and sediment into the streams following those fires.
“We prioritize populations based on a lot of things, but primarily on the oldest populations,” Wick said. “After the fires, we went through those areas before the rains came, and we evacuated those fish to hatcheries.”
Recovery teams use 24-volt batteries to stun the fish with electric shock so they can be gathered up and removed. They are then placed in metal boxes containing specially treated water for shipment to a hatchery.
There was a positive side to those devastating blazes. The fires also killed nonnative fish, clearing the way for the introduction of Gila trout into streams, such as Whitewater Creek, free of competition.
Because the Whitewater Creek restoration project is located on lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service and is subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, it is now going through an environmental assessment process.
Two public meetings have been held in Glenwood, the Catron County town located in the heart of the Whitewater Creek restoration effort, and public comment on the restoration plan is being accepted. Wick said there is no deadline for public input, but that it will be most useful if received before March 25.
The plan calls for killing any nonnative fish that may still remain in the restoration area, a mission that would be accomplished by using a poison known as piscicide rotenone.
“A lot of people have concerns about it,” Wick said. “That’s why we like to have comments and public meetings so we can answer their questions.”
Wick said the poison only affects gill-breathing animals, so it will not harm mammals and humans.
“It will not affect cows drinking the water,” she said. “It is only present in a stream for about four hours. We set a downstream boundary, dilute it with another chemical and it will not go below the boundary.”
Wick said that, if given the green light, the restoration project will take two to five years to complete.
“We are anticipating the project will take about two years,” she said. “But there are so many variables that can come up that would make it longer. A wildfire would be one of them, something that happens so that we cannot access the recovery areas.”
Fishing for Gila trout has been permitted since it was taken off the endangered list in 2006. The goal of this portion of the restoration plan is to manage Whitewater Creek as a special trout water with a daily bag limit of two Gila trout.
“There are other places you can go to fish for rainbow trout,” Wick said. “This is where you can fish for Gila trout.”