New Mexico fire prompts fish rescue

Threatened Gila trout moved to hatchery

A team of biologists retrieve threatened Gila trout from a stream in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The fish are being transported to the Mora fish hatchery in northern New Mexico to save them from ash, soil and charred debris washing into streams after the Whitewater-Baldy Fire. Enlarge photo

KC SHEDDEN, U.S. Forest Service/Associated Press

A team of biologists retrieve threatened Gila trout from a stream in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The fish are being transported to the Mora fish hatchery in northern New Mexico to save them from ash, soil and charred debris washing into streams after the Whitewater-Baldy Fire.

ALBUQUERQUE – Biologists are trying to save a threatened trout in southwestern New Mexico from the post-wildfire ravages, even as crews nearby and around the West struggle to contain blazes that have charred hundreds of square miles of forested countryside.

A team used electroshocking devices to temporarily stun the Gila trout so they could quickly be scooped into a net. From there, the fish were being put into a tank to be ferried out of the wilderness via helicopter to a special truck that was waiting to drive them to a hatchery in northern New Mexico for safe keeping.

The first load of trout was brought out June 15, and the work will continue into Saturday, said Art Telles, a biologist and staff resource officer with the Gila National Forest.

The fish are imperiled by the wildfire aftermath – choking floods of ash, soil and charred debris that are expected to come with summer rains.

“When we have hot fire in some of these drainages, that can move ash and sediment after the rains start, and that is pretty deadly to trout,” he said.

The fish wranglers are focusing on small creeks deep within the perimeter of the Whitewater-Baldy fire, a blaze that has charred more than 453 square miles of the forest and its famed Gila Wilderness. The fire, the largest in the state’s history and the biggest currently burning in the United States, is 63 percent contained.

The trout was one of the original species listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. At that time, its range had been reduced to only four streams within the Gila forest. Through recovery efforts, federal officials decided in 2006 to change the trout’s status to threatened.

“The burning of some of these drainages here definitely is a concern because they’re some of the streams we had worked on to help with recovery,” Telles said.

The immediate focus includes trout in Whiskey and Langstroth creeks, which make up one of four genetically distinct lineages of the fish. Forest and wildlife officials also are evaluating whether to remove Gila trout from Spruce Creek as well as federally protected Gila chub from Turkey Creek.

The evacuated fish could end up staying at the Mora hatchery in northern New Mexico for some time, forest officials said. After the fire, biologists will monitor the area to see how much ash and sediment will be washed into the creeks by summer monsoons.

Telles said it’s too early to say whether the fire and the aftermath will have any effect on the trout’s status.

The decades-long effort to help the trout recover has included the removal of nonnative fish from a handful of streams in the wilderness. Restocking in some streams started two years ago.

“The Gila trout is an intrinsic value to our wilderness. It’s part of what people seek when they come here,” Telles said. “You have trout fishermen from all over the country who want to come and fish for Gila trout.”