In the frigid, rough-and-tumble waters of Whitewater Creek, which squeezes through soaring stone walls, a rare trout thrives again after a 100-year brush with extinction. A native son is home.
Saved from overfishing, the introduction of non-native fish and apocalyptic wildfires by a small band of biologists, rangers, helicopter pilots and pack horses, this golden-hued descendant of prehistoric salmon is now abundant enough to be open to fishing. In the wilds of far southwestern New Mexico and Arizona, it is the most southern of all native trout in the United States.
In the coming years, it could even be taken off the Endangered Species Act’s list, a huge comeback, while it is now protected as threatened. Yet in Washington, the Biden administration faces a daunting task, reversing the Trump administration’s efforts to strip protection from threatened species, undoing 40 years of careful and arduous toil, snatching oblivion from life. And so, this sleek, apex predator of cold waters embodies the very success story of the Endangered Species Act that must be saved.
When most Americans think of endangered or threatened species, they probably don’t stop long to consider fish. Yet like their ocean-going cousin, the salmon, they are vital to our waters. And none is as universally cherished as the trout; it’s the first fish most of us ever caught one summer even with a bobber and a worm. Trout have been lionized by Izaak Walton, Ernest Hemingway and John Gierach.
Even with failing eyesight and a gimpy stride, I have continued to chase them into my 50s now, with a fly rod, though I haven’t killed a fish in years. “If I fished only to capture,” Zane Grey once wrote, “my fishing trips would have ended long ago.”
At least 500,000 years ago, as the oceans of the mid-Pleistocene Era withdrew, the fish evolved to its newly harsh conditions where water was less abundant, predators were more common and food was scarce. The Gila trout became a wary aquatic hunter, bolting for rocks and logs at the slightest sense of danger. Yet it grew so bountiful that by the early 20th century, it was seined and hooked to death. The legal limit in New Mexico then: 50 fish a day. Unrestricted grazing and logging worsened deadly floods that turned narrow creeks to sluices of mud.
After leaving his native Wisconsin, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold adopted the Gila Mountains as his home in 1912. In 1924, his papers record a storm: “In addition to the usual signs of the recent flood, the destruction of fences and a thick coat of mud left everywhere, many dead fish, the so-called Gila trout, were scattered along the riverbanks.”
Within a decade, plans were hatched to introduce non-native fish, like the brook, brown and rainbow trout, from as far away as Yellowstone. The rainbow thrived. In 1966, the native trout was placed on the endangered species list. In 1980, over 200,000 acres of this land became the Aldo Leopold National Wilderness. But by then, when I traipsed into the wilderness, backpacking with my late father, the Gila trout was only a legend. No one living had legally caught one in years. I never even saw one.
Nearly 100 years after Leopold, another inexperienced Wisconsin scientist arrived in New Mexico. In 2011, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire devoured over 170,000 acres of the Gila Mountains — over 250 square miles. In a mad scramble to save 30 years of work and the Gila trout, crews with pack horses evacuated the rare trout in the face of the roaring fire. Helicopter crews lifted away with bags of water and trout slung underneath.
That’s around the time Jill Wick, formerly of Wisconsin, was given the job as the head state biologist — in charge of saving the beleaguered fish. “I’m up for a challenge,” she said to me. “This work has given me a respect for the resiliency of the species that have managed to evolve in the hard conditions of the Southwest.”
Nearly a decade later, in December 2018, she and others released 4,100 Gila trout into Whitewater Creek, the culmination of years of killing off non-native fish, improving streams and banks, and raising the natives in a hatchery. Gila trout from different creeks are slightly genetically different and, nevertheless, even the five populations destroyed by the great fire have all been restored to their homes, numbering 14 rivers and creeks in all.
Perhaps fishing, best in the cold and cool months, puts a little pep in the step of the town — if the fish can lure the fishermen and their wallets. The owners of the Los Olmos Lodge have not only spruced up that place but bought the old gas station across the road. It has blossomed as the Glenwood Trading Post; and the young lady behind the counter attests, yes, the fishermen and women are coming.
If this native trout is successfully delisted, it would join the ranks of another New Mexico success story, the Mexican gray wolf, as well as the American bald eagle and the Louisiana black bear. Just 1 percent of creatures listed have ever gone extinct. Yet events in Washington have endangered this outcome. The Trump administration did not try to strip all protection from the Gila trout. Yet it stood to lose significant ones, reversing decades of labor.
In addition, the federal government would no longer protect it from the effects of climate change, even as this part of the country is ground zero for climate change. It’s growing hotter and drier as what little rain there is even evaporates before hitting the soil. The state fish of New Mexico, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout of the north, similarly stood to lose. The Trump rules also have generally tipped the scales away from fragile species and toward economic uses of American public lands. Much of the Gila trout’s range lies within national forests where timber is still cut and cattle still graze.
Here, the sorghum dry-farming of my youth, for instance, ceased for lack of rainfall. When I visit, the western slope of the wilderness is burned brown for lack of rainfall and even Whitewater Creek is no wider than the hood of my car and not much deeper in some places, especially summer.
“These changes [crashed] a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections for America’s most vulnerable wildlife,” said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director of the Center for Biodiversity, headquartered in Tucson, Ariz. New Mexico has been one of 17 states suing the Trump administration.
The administration also tried to rewrite the rules of another law, the National Environmental Policy Act signed by President Nixon in 1970. Changes would have blocked conservationists like Trout Unlimited from even commenting on, let alone objecting, to new projects on Forest Service land. Both the Gila trout and its genetic cousin in Arizona, the Apache trout, reside in these forests. Both are on the cusp of historic comebacks.
“Imagine if we can recover native southwestern trout in spite of climate change,” according to Chris Wood, chief executive of Trout Unlimited. “That would demonstrate to people all over the Southwest — all over the nation, really — that they are not powerless. Then perhaps our efforts to protect, reconnect and restore these desert landscapes hold hope for their kids and grandkids, too.”
Native fish are crucial to many of our environments, and replacing them with just another fish is like playing God — badly. In Yellowstone, native cutthroats were replaced with bigger midwestern lake trout. But they dwelled so deep that bears increasingly found fewer fish and so killed more elk calves for food. Now the lakers are being fished out.
On the banks of Whitewater Creek, I’m reminded, of course, of Norman Maclean and one of his least famous passages.
“Now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening,” he wrote. “In the half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul … and the hope that a fish will rise.”
So, I hobble up this canyon once more, fly rod in hand. Certainly not to kill and not so much to catch a trout. And sure enough, a glistening creature comes to hand, its wild, dark eyes beholding me as I behold it. I give it a kiss on the nose and slip it back into the water. “Welcome little brother, native son,” I say. “Welcome home.”