At age 69, Jim Brooks is still traversing the Gila Wilderness with his pack mules and a purpose.
Though he retired from a long career as a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service eight years ago, he says he remains “neck deep” in Gila trout work.
No vehicles are allowed in the wilderness, so Brooks loads up his mules with willow saplings, tools and supplies for trips into remote regions with wildlife agency workers and volunteers, hoping to recreate a suitable home for the Gila trout in areas affected by wildfire.
Brooks has invested decades into restoring the habitat of this threatened fish in a region that’s been significantly changed and charred since the days his father brought him here as a child.
“There are huge swaths of the landscape that have no trees on them, just burnt sticks,” Brooks said. “The absence of trees in very large areas is just mind-boggling.”
Over time, a warming climate and competition from nonnative trout have confined New Mexico’s two native trout species — the Gila and the Rio Grande cutthroat — to small pockets of their historic range where mountain streams remain cool enough for survival.
Now, megafires are ripping through the forests to shrink their habitat even further, rocking these fragile populations that have been teetering for decades.
Native trout advocates nervously monitored conditions in the spring and early summer as the two largest wildfires in New Mexico’s recorded history simultaneously bore down on the two species.
The mammoth Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, caused by two prescribed burns gone awry, consumed more than 530 square miles of forest in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and burned habitat for populations of all three distinct genetic lineages of the Rio Grande cutthroat trout in the Canadian, Pecos and Rio Grande drainage basins.
In the southwest corner of the state, Gila trout populations came under siege from the 325,000-acre Black Fire that hit parts of Gila National Forest that were missed by the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, previously the largest fire in state history at nearly 300,000 acres.
Several populations are feared to have been lost in the Black Fire and last year’s 89,000-acre Johnson Fire.
Though surveys have not been completed, Brooks estimates about nine populations of the bronze-bodied, black-speckled Gila trout remain in forest streams.
“The Whitewater-Baldy Fire centered right on top of the heart and soul of Gila trout country in New Mexico,” Brooks said. “It burned places in the Mogollon Mountains where it affected almost every Gila trout population that we had, except what was in the East Fork, which got hammered this year by the Black Fire.
“It’s like watching 25 years of your career pass before your eyes. A lot of what you’d done, worked hard to do, is burnt up.”
Small steps forward erased by a large step back — it’s a common, heart-wrenching reality for those fighting to gain ground in the efforts to restore native trout populations.
But even after he’s seen multiple devastating megafires wipe out years of modest gains, Brooks says the sadness is supplanted by a sense of urgency.
“Time is not on the side of the trout because it’s just getting progressively drier all the time,” he said. “You can’t sit around and wait for the habitats to restore themselves or for streamside vegetation to come back so that you can have shading. You have to go in and get your hands dirty.”
In the northern reaches of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Middle Ponil Creek meanders through the sprawling high meadows of Valle Vidal — the Valley of Life.
This isolated unit of Carson National Forest is where 108 Rio Grande cutthroat trout, New Mexico’s state fish, get their second chance.
These cutthroat survived the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire as it burned over their former habitat of Rito Morphy, a stream southwest of Mora. But they wouldn’t have lived much longer.
It’s not typically the initial fire that kills off fish. Instead, it’s the toxic post-fire ash flow and destructive flooding during the summer monsoon that more likely result in mortality.
Biologists from the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Game and Fish collaborated with fire resource advisers to identify salvageable populations of genetically pure Rio Grande cutthroat trout, characterized by the vivid red slashes along their jaws.
Small groups then entered the fresh burn scars in June to attempt rescues of the fish before heavy summer rains set in.
“While we’re dealing with that, it’s almost like on-the-ground triage,” said Stephen Hampton, fish biologist with Santa Fe National Forest. “The fire did some crazy things, so we had limited scope, limited ability and limited time.”
The crews used electrofishing equipment to stun the cutthroat in the creeks, scooped them up in nets, put them in transportation tanks and brought them to various locations for holding while work was done to identify potential streams for their rerelease.
Populations were successfully rescued from streams in three separate drainages within the burn scar, including 190 cutthroat trout from Rito Morphy in the Canadian River basin, 267 from Alamitos Creek in the Rio Grande basin, and 119 from Rio Valdez in the Pecos River basin.
A crew also went in to attempt a rescue in Rio Mora but found no surviving cutthroat.
Middle Ponil Creek was identified as a prime habitat for the rescued cutthroat from Rito Morphy and a section was cleared of nonnative trout last month with use of a fish pesticide called rotenone.
Nonnative species like rainbow trout, stocked in the past in native trout territory for recreational fishing, often outcompete native species for resources and may also interbreed with them. Physical barriers like natural waterfalls or man-made gabion baskets are frequently used to keep native trout in stream segments that are isolated from nonnative species.
On Sept. 15, the rescued Rio Grande cutthroat from Rito Morphy made the eight-hour journey from a small laboratory facility at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces to Valle Vidal in transportation tanks loaded on the bed of a pickup.
Members of the state Department of Game and Fish, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were present on arrival to help with and witness the release.
“This is a big one,” said Mike Ruhl, assistant chief of research in the fisheries division of the Game and Fish Department, who made the long drive with the trout. “It’s satisfying to watch the fish go in, and hopefully these fish will have a good future.”
The cutthroat trout saved from Alamitos Creek were introduced into two streams in the Rio Grande basin, while those rescued from Rio Valdez are at the Seven Springs Hatchery in the Jemez Mountains and will be spawned at the facility to begin a brood stock of the Pecos lineage of the species.
Ruhl said that over time, the agencies responsible for restoring New Mexico’s native trout have developed a cohesion that paid off during this year’s simultaneous megafires.
“Past fires have prepared us for these moments,” Ruhl said. “If anything, we’re more prepared now than we were before, but this is an eventuality that we planned for.”
Pressure under fire
At the same time the Black Fire began to flare up in the Gila, the world’s only facility that holds brood stock of Gila trout was under threat from the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire hundreds of miles away.
Operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Mora National Fish Hatchery has been breeding and raising the rare species since 1999.
The Gila trout was listed as endangered in 1973 and down listed to threatened in 2006, which allowed for angling opportunities the following year. Rio Grande cutthroat trout, which currently occupy just 12 percent of their historic distribution in Colorado and New Mexico, were considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act from 2008-14 but were not included.
The Mora hatchery holds brood stock, a group of mature fish used for breeding purposes, for the five known genetic lineages of Gila trout. It also serves as a source used to repopulate streams, a location to hold fish whose habitat has been damaged by fire, and a backup in case a lineage is wiped out in the wild.
From late April through May, the hatchery and surrounding areas faced evacuation orders and power outages as the unpredictable blaze displaced thousands of residents and destroyed hundreds of homes.
Trevor Luna managed the hatchery throughout the ordeal. He and his family were forced to flee their home in Rociada and briefly lived in housing at the hatchery before that, too, was evacuated.
Luna’s family then relocated to Angel Fire and he commuted between there and the hatchery, working with five other staff members to keep hundreds of fish alive.
“Every one of our employees had evacuation orders on their primary residences, so we’re dealing with the personal evacuations and the trauma of being told to pack up your stuff and go, and then trying to manage the facility through all that,” Luna said.
State Game and Fish Department personnel assisted in transporting subsets of young Gila trout to the Red River Fish Hatchery and facilities in Albuquerque and Dexter to have representative examples of genetics maintained in other locations in case of catastrophe at the Mora hatchery.
Fire crews bulldozed a fire line and later lit a backfire 100 yards from the facility as the wildfire approached in order to prevent it from advancing any closer.
While the fire was a real threat, Luna said the primary concern was loss of power.
The hatchery uses recirculating aquaculture systems that are all pump driven. The system reuses 95 percent of its water but needs to draw 5 percent from a groundwater well.
A two-week power outage required the facility to rely on its two backup generators to run the recirculating systems and pump water from the wellfield. Failure of one of the generators, Luna said, would have given the staff about an hour to fix the issue before the life-support systems for the fish failed.
On the 14th day of the power outage, the well field generator threw a fan blade into the radiator. Coolant was leaking and the generator was hobbling, Luna said. As the crew was scrambling to get a backup backup generator in place, power was mercifully restored.
Just as the threat of the wildfire passed, the facility was needed to take in Gila trout rescued from the Black Fire.
“The fact that the hatchery was able to weather the fire and have fish that came through just highlighted the importance of the facility and its ability to hold fish, as volatile as things on the landscape can be,” Luna said. “It was very fortunate that we were able to come through the fire as well as we did.”
‘They definitely deserve to survive’
Jeff Arterburn is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at New Mexico State University, but he says his true passion is trout.
He fished Rio Grande cutthroat trout growing up in Colorado, and in the 31 years since moving to Southern New Mexico, he’s become locked in on Gila trout.
Arterburn is president of the Gila/Rio Grande Chapter of the nonprofit Trout Unlimited, which advocates for the care and recovery of waterways for native trout. For many years, he has accompanied Jim Brooks and others into the Gila to work on post-fire restoration projects.
The experiences have made Arterburn well acquainted with the challenges of working in the volatile landscapes.
“The systems can be just so unstable and it’s very difficult to do work that can hold up to the magnitude of some of these floods,” Arterburn said. “An entire hillside can just slough into and fill a stream.”
Volunteers and agency workers come to realize that a lot of their work will wash away. The key is to not get discouraged, as some of what is built and planted will take hold.
“It’s like in Spanish, poco, poco — little by little,” Brooks said. “But you have to keep at it.”
In addition to the issues caused by fire, Brooks said climate change has resulted in noticeably less snowpack in winter. This has reduced the steady spring runoffs that typically scour out the deeper pools in which trout thrive.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month released its Revised Recovery Plan for Gila Trout. The plan states a goal of recovering populations to the point the species no longer needs protection under the Endangered Species Act, with an estimated date of recovery of 2032.
The plan identified 23 existing populations of Gila trout, though that number compiled in April is now more likely in the teens following the Black Fire.
Several populations have been established in Arizona streams to expand the species’ range and diversify the risk of fire’s impact on Gila trout in the wild.
Large-scale, high-severity wildfires and the degraded habitats they create are listed in the plan as the top threats facing the Gila trout.
While these large wildfires can be devastating for the species, they sometimes also provide an opportunity.
Just as fires can eliminate native populations, they can also remove nonnative populations. These streams can then be used as a clean slate for reintroduction of native species following stabilization work.
The limited range and remote habitats of the Gila trout and Rio Grande cutthroat trout mean many anglers and residents often have greater familiarity with the more accessible nonnative species.
Toner Mitchell, the New Mexico water and habitat coordinator for Trout Unlimited, said his organization has worked to reacquaint New Mexicans with their native trout species to positive effect.
Cattle grazers in native trout territory have been cooperative in helping build fences and rotating animals to allow for stream restoration efforts to take hold.
“We view Rio Grande cutthroat trout as kind of a cultural icon, and getting communities to kind of rediscover the love for their native fish, that’s been pretty rewarding,” Mitchell said.
New Mexico’s native trout advocates realize the daunting road ahead to help Gila and Rio Grande cutthroat trout expand their range.
They don’t believe a trout is just a trout, and they hope New Mexicans realize the special resource they have in these native species.
“They’ve sustained the original residents and we want them to be there to sustain us — to provide us with a connection back to our natural history,” Arterburn said. “If there’s anything, I hope the people can find a place in their hearts for native fish because they definitely deserve to survive in our future.”