Gila trout: Return of the native

Gila trout from Willow Creek, Gila National Forest. 

by Randy Scholfield

(All photos by Josh Duplechian)

Some trout are, in the long arc of time, relative newcomers to the interior West. Take brown trout and rainbows—they’re been here for an eyeblink of history. Then there are trout that speak to us from a deep place in time. They are natives of their place.

I recently travelled to Willow Creek, on the edge of the Gila Wilderness, where the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Trout Unlimited and other partners were conducting a survey of spawning Gila trout. In 2012, the 300,000-acre Whitewater Baldy fire—the largest in New Mexico’s history—wiped out several populations of Gila in this area, underscoring the urgency of efforts to protect and recover this rare native trout species.

After the four-hour drive from Albuquerque, TU videographer Josh Duplechian and I arrive at the small Game and Fish agency cabin along Willow Creek. There we meet up with Jim Brooks, who is leaning against a corral fence, grimacing. He has just been bucked off his new mule-in-training.

After introductions, he says, "We might have to skip the mule-riding pictures today. I think I pulled something." He crouches gingerly and grins.

Jim Brooks

Brooks is also a native of this place. He grew up in southern Arizona, going on hunting and fishing backcountry trips with his father. As a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, he spent three decades on pack trips into the Gila backcountry to help conduct native trout sampling and research efforts. 

The country is etched on his weathered face. While he looks like a cowboy, and shares a cowboy’s affinity for jokes, whiskey and green chili, Brooks speaks with a scientist’s precision and expertise on Gila trout.

It quickly becomes clear that native trout are a subject dear to his heart—perhaps even more so than his beloved mules.

“I’ve invested a lot of my career and life in Gila trout,” Brooks told us. “It’s a passion to me—it’s not just a job, never has been.”

How did Gila trout get here?  Brooks said that, eons ago, the ancestral trout of present-day Gila travelled up primeval drainages from the Gulf of California to these mountains. After the last ice age retreated 10,000-15,000 years ago, they were left isolated in this remote backcountry.

Today, Gila trout are found in just a handful of drainages in southern New Mexico and Arizona. They’ve endured in these high mountain streams for thousands of years, endlessly swimming against current and flood and rock and fire, holding on to their niche in time. The landscape is bred into their bone and blood and marked on their flesh.

By the 1970s, their range reduced to some 20 stream miles, the EPA declared Gila an endangered species. Since then, restoration and restocking successes have slowly expanded their range, leading to their downlisting and even a few fishable populations. But in the last decade, climate change and drought, invasive species and mega-wildfires have pressured them as never before.

Gila are still living on the edge. And it’s clear that any recovery effort will require a long view.

As we talked, Brooks suddenly had to pause, filled with emotion, as he described what it was like to pack into this burned landscape after the massive Whitewater-Baldy fire.

He saw much of his life’s work reduced to charred stumps and ashes.

Burned landscape in Willow Creek drainage

Thankfully, many Gila trout survived the fire—it’s a misconception, he says, that the huge fires “boil the streams” and kill everything in them. What’s deadly is the aftermath: when the summer monsoon rains come, liquefied ash surges down hillsides into the creeks and scours them for miles downstream. Brooks was among the teams who rushed in to rescue Gila trout after the fire; buckets of the trout were helicoptered out for safekeeping at the Mora hatchery before the rains and deadly slurry washed through.

For all the destruction, there was a silver lining in the massive fire: nonnative brown trout, which had proliferated and outcompeted Gilas in Willow Creek, were wiped out, creating an opportunity to restock and reclaim this watershed with natives.

Toward that end, a new concrete barrier just downstream will prevent nonnatives from reentering this watershed. (Isolation is a key long-term strategy for protecting Gilas from invasives.)

While at Willow Creek, we watch New Mexico Game and Fish biologists, including team leader Jill Wick, electrofish Willow Creek to find spawning Gilas and collect eggs to raise in a nearby hatchery for reintroduction.

The first day is disappointing—the team (aided by TU volunteers Scott Garlid and Nate Rees)  finds just one female Gila with eggs. The next afternoon, farther upstream, they hit a motherlode of spawning females and bring them back to a makeshift creekside station for spawning. The biologists squeeze the females, squirting any eggs into a waiting canister. Then they carefully clip the anipose fins for identification and take another clipping from the tails for genetic analysis.

Gila eggs in canister

It was a good sign: the Gilas are here, coming back. But the journey, as always in these rugged mountains, is uncertain and laden with obstacles. A major question mark is the climate itself.

“Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have been in this spot in April—there would have been four feet of snow on the ground,” Brooks points out, as we sit along Willow Creek that warm day. He’s seen the climate grow much warmer here in his lifetime, with snowpack getting thinner and runoff coming sooner. Add the ravages of wildfires like Whitewater-Baldy and, in many ways, it’s just not the same place.

The big question researchers are trying to answer is, can these tough Southwestern trout—masters of survival—hang on amid these whiplash extremes of temperature and changing habitat? How much pressure can they take, and how quickly can they adapt?

The question is critical not just for Gila trout but for many other species in the Southwest.

“The native trout of the Southwest are the quintessential canary in the coal mine,” said Brooks. “And as they go, the Southwest goes.”

So the Gila trout recovery team comes here, year after year, recording the trout numbers, spawning data, weather patterns, water temperatures and other details. 

Jill Wick of Game and Fish admits that the prognosis for Gila trout is uncertain, because the future climate is uncertain. “We just don’t know yet,” she said.

Will the Gila still be here in 10,000 years? I wouldn’t bet against them. But in a future climate altered by humans, their survival might in part depend on our efforts today to give them a fighting chance.

What gives hope are passionate, dedicated people like Jim Brooks and Jill Wick who continue devoting their lives to this place and unique species.

Randy Scholfield is TU’s director of communications for the Southwest. 

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