In ancient times, nomadic peoples regularly traveled back and forth over what is now the border between Arizona and New Mexico. This was—and in many cases, still is—rugged wilderness, and supreme survival skills were necessary for these people to find sustenance. Fortunately, game was abundant, as were fish, including Arizona’s two native trout, the apache and the gila. But what nature provides, man too often squanders—some 40 years ago, apache trout became the first native fish to be added to the endangered species list, and the gila wasn’t far behind on that dark road toward extinction.
Today, though, there’s great news from the rivers: ambitious restoration projects for both fish are having success, as tribes, governmental agencies and sportsmen collaborate in an extraordinary effort to keep hope—and trout—alive.
Swimming Toward the Light
Standing amid forest foliage some 4,000 feet above the valley floor outside Safford, Arizona, Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist Jason Kline quietly summed up the current restoration project: “Physically taxing, but well worth the effort—this is a historic occasion that will create a unique angling experience. This will be the only place on Earth where you can fish for five species of trout on the same mountain.”
The effort in question stocked a five-mile section of Frye Creek headwaters in the Pinaleño Mountain range with gila trout fingerlings in late February of this year. “We were like Johnny Appleseed, placing a few trout in every good-looking pool that offered current and cover as a new home,” Kline said.
Despite interstate transport by truck from a hatchery in New Mexico, then being hauled by helicopters up the mountain in 50-gallon drums and repackaged in five-gallon containers so that they could be hand-carried the last couple of miles to their new homes/streams, the mortality rates for the transplanted fish was minimal. A second stocking effort will be made later this spring, weather permitting.
Described by some ichthyologists as “artifacts from epochs past” and “swimming expressions of antiquity,” Gila trout became one of the original species listed for protection after being forced for decades to swim upstream against a current of extinction. These once-ubiquitous copper-colored swimmers have had to fight for livable stream space and battle everything from drought and floods to forest fires and human encroachment in order to survive.
The hearty stockers that recently became new Arizona residents adapted rapidly to their new homes in small cold-water creek pools. “A large section of the upper Frye Creek watershed was burned in a lightning-caused fire in 2004,” said Richard Gerhart, the fish program manager for Coronado National Forest. “The fire raced through the area, leaving ash and debris flow that scoured and silted the creek and in the process killed all the stocked non-native fish.”
That left the creek without any fish, which opened up space for new finned occupants and got the green-shirted forest folks involved in the project. “In North America, fish and wildlife belong to citizens and are held in trust by the states,” Gerhart said. “But in the West, most states, including Arizona, do not control a significant amount of habitat that fish and wildlife need and that’s where land-management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service come in because our mission is to sustain the health and diversity of forests and grasslands. In this project, the fish were grown in a federal hatchery and transported by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so state Game and Fish could release them into habitats on the national forest. Clearly, no single agency could accomplish this without the participation and cooperation of the other partners. None of us could accomplish our respective missions without working in tandem.”
“It’s the only way you can get things done,” Kline added. “Different entities are better at different things, and everyone contributed their specialty to help close this deal.”
Because of that close cooperation, taxpayers should be pleased to know that financial impact was kept to a minimum. “Hard costs were limited to fuel and mileage to transport the fish and rental of the helicopter for the barrel drops,” said Kline—and perhaps a bottle or two of ibuprofen to relieve the aches and pains that resulted from the arduous trek up and down the mountain stream.
While patience will be required, the eventual plan is to offer limited angling opportunities—barbless hook, artificial fly, catch-and-release. These transplanted gila trout won’t reach trophy-fish size in their small headwaters, but they should ultimately be a prize coveted by anglers interested in catching native trout in native waters.
You Gotta Have a Hook
The apache trout, found nowhere in the world except the streams and lakes of eastern Arizona’s high country, was on the federal endangered species list for decades, but it has been working its way back toward a healthy population recently, thanks to a big assist from the Apache Trout Recovery Partnership.
Optimistic predictions last year that it might be delisted from its current “threatened” category and removed completely from that list proved premature, but members of the Apache Trout Recovery Partnership believe that these brilliantly colored yellow-gold fish may soon achieve that goal.
In the late 1800s apache trout were abundant in the White Mountains, and early settlers were able to harvest hundreds at a time—so many that the trout were frequently dried and salted away as larder for the unfishable winter months. Then the introduction of non-native trout, the lack of harvest restrictions, growing urbanization and other events detrimental to their healthy habitat combined to devastate the apache-trout population, which went from swimming in 820 miles of clear, cold, gravel-bottomed steams down to just 30 miles of pristine water.
The White Mountain Apache Tribe realized how serious the problem was some 60 years ago, when the only remaining pure populations of apache trout lived in just a few streams on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. In 1955, all reservation streams thought to contain pure populations were closed to sport fishing and a federal-state-tribal recovery effort began. “Initial conservation efforts were not enough,” said retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Bob David, a former project leader at the National Fish Hatchery Complex in White River, Arizona. “Apache trout were categorized as ‘endangered’ and became federally protected in 1973. And stayed endangered for a couple of years until stocking of hatchery-reared fingerlings resumed, recovery hopes brightened, and they were upgraded to their current ‘threatened’ category.”
They’ve stayed “threatened” for a couple of decades now while a consortium of agencies work to save them. “All of the fishable streams on the reservation are stocked with apache trout, as are 16 of our lakes,” said Tim Gatewood, a fisheries biologist with the White Mountain Apache Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation division. “We’ve also taken some 100 percent genetically pure fish and put them in the hatchery as brood stock for future transplants. Much of what we’ve been doing lately is repairing wear and tear on barriers designed to keep aggressive non-native fish from moving up into the headwaters home of the apache. Because we can’t use chemicals, we have to electroshock intruders to keep the strain genetically pure. We’d like to add additional stream miles after we’ve taken out the non-native fish.”
Roughly 125,000 apache trout are stocked annually in reservation streams and lakes, with another million healthy eggs reared for stocking on Forest Service and non-tribal lands. Although there’s lots of work to be done, many hands are making the workload lighter. Since 2003 the White Mountain Apache Tribe has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the sportsman’s group Trout Unlimited (TU) to do the needed conservation work. “We appreciate the help,” said Gatewood. “There were times in the early days where differences got in the way, but this program has evolved and brought us to a point where we work well together.”
Recognizing the importance of this mission, TU has contributed cash as well as time and toil. “Apache-trout restoration is one of our top conservation priorities and an investment in a unique American resource,” said Joe McGurrin, TU Director of Resources, of the 140,000-member TU group. “You can fish for rainbow and brown trout just about anywhere, but the White Mountain lakes and streams in Arizona are the only place on Earth where you can seek out these fish.” Added Carl Lee, former chairman of the Arizona Council of TU: “Apache trout are as much a part of our heritage as the Grand Canyon and the Sonoran Desert.”
Trout Unlimited national officials believe a successful recovery here will bring anglers—and lots of cash—into the state. “We like all kinds of wild trout,” said McGurrin, “but when you have something this unique and special, a well-managed fishery could be a tremendous regional economic boost. Yellowstone in Wyoming and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park offer catch-and-release cutthroat trout and have become multimillion-dollar-a-year destination locations for fishing—something that could happen here.”