PROTECTING A NATIONAL TREASURE: THE GILA TROUT
WORDS by LAUREN TEDFORD + MEDIA by JOHN DALE
When two separate wildfires, known as the Whitewater Baldy Wildfires, converged in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico on May 23, 2012, it was bad news for the outdoor fishing community at large. A celebrated native North American species, the Gila trout, almost exclusively inhabits the streams within this wilderness area, which was now burnt to a crisp. Though Gila trout are limited to just a few mountain streams in New Mexico and Arizona, they can be found scribbled on the “life lists” of many hopeful fly fishermen. One of the first North American fish to be actively conserved, there is no doubt that the Gila trout is immensely important to the world of fishing. These rare fish are as unique as they are hard to find— their shiny, golden scales and distinct coloring has been compared to that of the New Mexico sunset itself.
Though Gila trout are limited to just a few mountain streams in New Mexico and Arizona, they can be found scribbled on the “life lists” of many hopeful fly fishermen.
The Whitewater Baldy fires tore through the Gila Wilderness (Gila trout HQ, so to speak) eliminating over half of the streams known for hosting these legendary trout. Even after the flames died out, the fish were still in danger— ash debris threatened six of the eight streams that were in the area. Besides the ash’s initial threat to the stream’s water quality, burned soil and ash is known to over-fertilize algae and water plants. This might not sound like such a bad thing, but when over-fertilized, these plants gobble up all the dissolved oxygen in the water for themselves and the Gila trout are left with no oxygen to live off of. Essentially, they suffocate. The ash that was pouring into the streams would soon make the rivers uninhabitable; the proverbial clock was ticking.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along with many other agencies and individuals stepped up to the plate and conducted full scale rescue efforts to preserve these treasured fish. Gila trout were captured before being helicoptered, backpacked, and driven in aerated tanks to more suitable streams that were sometimes as far as nine hours away. This was some real mission-impossible shit— Gila trout style. Almost 10,000 Gila trout were evacuated and reintroduced into healthy streams. Even finding suitable streams for these trout was a task, as many streams were swarming with competitive fish. If you can find any sort of silver lining, the wildfires actually helped clear out some of these streams. They ripped through the rivers, and, in the process, evicted (well, more like exterminated) non-native fish, paving the way for the Gila trout.
Besides the rescued trout, others were spawned and raised in captivity undergoing rigorous "training" for the wild (they were put in tough swimming and water conditions to ensure they would be fit enough to inhabit their new stream-homes). Gila trout hatcheries were established as early as the 1920’s— the premier hatchery being the Jenks Cabin Hatchery founded by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. Many hatcheries throughout the region are now up and running in hopes of introducing the Gila trout into more streams. Two of the awesome individuals involved in this evacuation-recovery effort go by the names of David Propst and Jim Brooks. David and Jim have each devoted more than 30 years working to conserve Gila trout. There’s a short list of folks who know as much about the Gila trout as they do.
Entering into the work of conservation "by accident", both of these guys have now seen this prized species of trout through all the good, the bad and the ugly. When these guys first started working in the Gila Wilderness area, the main threat to Gila trout was non-native fish and hybridization. These issues were still fresh on the minds of Gila conservationists all over New Mexico and Arizona when drought crept in, followed eventually by the infamous 2012 wildfires. Jim and David described the devastation of the fire saying, "this fire created the perfect storm, it sat down in just the right place to do the maximum amount of damage that a single fire could have done." They saw and felt first-hand the implications of this catastrophe.
These days, Jim spends countless hours conducting biological investigations on the trout, which he has published in several scientific journals. He also works on conservation projects to ensure that even after the Gila trout say “adios!” to the endangered species list, they can continue to grow in population and survive. Similarly, David has been involved in over 20 stream renovations to establish new populations of Gila trout and led a Gila trout recovery team from 1984 to 2015. These guys are the real-deal.
“Gila trout are a part of our heritage, just like we protect historical buildings and historical documents— why wouldn’t we want to maintain our biodiversity? It gets into the philosophical realm— because it exists, that is enough reason to protect it.”
These two aren’t the only people working hard to maintain this special species of trout. Many others have committed much of their life to this conservation effort. Though the 2012 fire is long gone, the pesky issues of hybridization and drought still remain a threat today. The Gila trout must be protected physically as well as genetically— allowing them to interbreed with other species of trout would mean that their native strain would genetically cease to exist. Conservation efforts are imperative for the preservation of this unique trout, so that they can remain a bucket list item for so many in the fly fishing community. As David eloquently said, “[Gila trout] are a part of our heritage, just like we protect historical buildings and historical documents— why wouldn’t we want to maintain our biodiversity?... it gets into the philosophical realm— because it exists, that is enough reason to protect it.” In the words of Sendero, “Protect this trout, ya bums!”
We here at Sendero respect and admire these trout as well as the countless men and women that have dedicated their time and efforts to protect them; so, of course, we want to do our part to contribute to Gila trout conservation! Be on the lookout for some new designs that will support these efforts. The announcements just keep getting better, because this is a two-part series on the Gila trout. In our next story, we’ll dive into current conservation efforts, the awesome people behind this important work, and how the trout are doing today— so stay tuned amigos!