Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator of Trout Unlimited's Durango office, always refers to the Animas as “she.”
“The Animas River is a female; only a woman could be that fascinating, demanding and fun to be with,” he said, adding that he “lives like a pauper to do this job because I love it.”
His favorite time to fish on the Animas is winter “when I can hear snowflakes plopping on the crystal clear water, and I have her all to myself.”
Trout Unlimited's Durango chapter was founded 27 years ago by the owners of Duranglers. At that time, most of the Silverton mines were closed, although contaminants were still seeping into the water. Churchwell's job at the conservation organization is to represent hunters and anglers who also love the Animas and want to keep it healthy for trout – a fish that has had a rough go of it since settlers arrived.
The miners who flocked to the Animas River around the turn of the 20th century gobbled up the native cuthroat trout and chemicals leaking from the mines killed off the insects and aquatic life that feed Animas fish.
“It was a one-two punch of overeating, overharvesting and chemical contamination,” Churchwell said.
In the decades since, conservationists have tried dozens of ways to restore trout to the Animas and its tributaries. After World War II, cowboys helping the U.S. Wildlife Service would carry hatchery or farmed trout in cast-iron jugs on their horses into the mountains, where they released the fish into Animas headwaters. Tanker trucks and helicopters with huge buckets also have been used to plop trout into the river and its tributaries.
Trout need cold water and a certain diet, and the leakage from Silverton mines has rendered Cement Creek and Mineral Creek uninhabitable. Churchwell said rainbow trout, which normally are found in the Cascades and the Sierras, and brown trout from Europe were released into the Animas and have adapted. A recreational fishing industry has blossomed along seven miles of the Animas.
Trout Unlimited and Parks and Wildlife both face the challenge of interesting kids raised on Wii and Grand Theft Auto in the more leisurely pursuit of fishing. One program pairs young people with experienced hunters to track big game. Another hosts fishing clinics.
A team of 11 Trout Unlimited scientists released a peer-reviewed study on Aug. 15 that shows climate change could reduce suitable trout habitat in the West by about 50 percent during the next 70 years.
Churchwell, who has degrees in horticulture and chemistry, refuses to discuss climate change. He won't even say whether he believes it exists.
Churchwell's normal work clothes are shorts, shirt and sandals. But he grew up in Colorado as the son of a conservative Republican banker who was also an avid sportsman. Churchwell still goes to his father for negotiating tips and for insights into the precious-metals markets so he can understand the perspective of mining workers who sometimes see conservationists as antagonists.
“To get my work done, I need to be able to sit at the table and forge alliances with people who have very different ideas about global warming,” Churchwell said. “It is not worth offending someone who agrees with me on most issues to take a stance on climate change or global warming.”