LA JUNTA POINT, N.M. - New Mexico's state fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, has returned to its namesake river.Dozens of volunteers released 2,000 fish into the Rio Grande after making an arduous trek down steep basalt cliffs to the confluence of the Rio Grande and Red River in northern New Mexico last week.
On their backs, they carried heavy jugs and plastic bags full of the 2- to 3-inch fingerlings.
This marked the first time the fish, a candidate for federal endangered species protection, has been released in the upper reaches of the infamous Rio Grande Gorge.
"It's a release that's intended to get people interested in the fish, understand its situation, and hopefully over time, we'll be able to restore the cutthroat to its native range," said Greg Gustina, a biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Wild Rivers Recreation Area where the fish were released.
Like many other native fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat has all but disappeared from its historic range throughout the Rio Grande basin in New Mexico and Colorado.
The fish, known for the red slash marks below its jaw and its large irregular spots, was the first North American trout to be recorded by Spanish explorers nearly 470 years ago.
Over the last century, the fish has struggled to keep pace with its non-native competitors and has seen its habitat disappear thanks to pressures on the arid region's water resources, logging, grazing and other threats.
The number of secure populations dropped from 13 to just a handful in the last few years, and many of the other populations are isolated and occur in short stream segments. One concern is that disease, non-native fish or events such as fires, droughts or floods could wipe out those isolated populations.
Conservationists have fought for years to have the Rio Grande cutthroat listed under the Endangered Species Act. After three lawsuits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed last year to designate the fish as a candidate for possible protections under the act.
"Our hopes are if we progress further with our restoration efforts we can keep it off the list," said Eric Frey, a fisheries manager with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department.
The Game and Fish Department and other partners have a long-range plan to restore the fish to about 150 miles of streams and several lakes in the subspecies' historic range.
Wednesday's release is part of an effort to spur interest in the state fish.
The Rio Grande cutthroat is not alone. Biologists across the West are trying to re-establish native populations - for example, Apache trout in Arizona, the Rio Grande silvery minnow in New Mexico and Texas and the rare least chub in Utah.