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Conservation in the Extremes
By Craig Springer
Photo Credit: © Jayson Coil, www.jaysoncoil.com
New Mexico has links to many “firsts.” It’s the birth place of the Atomic Age, conceived in the pine-studded mountains in the northern part of the state in the small burg of Los Alamos. It was then taken full term with the first A-bomb exploded in the dry Chihuahuan grasslands in the south near the nation’s first commercial spaceport, mere miles from the native range of White Sands pupfish (Cyprinodon tularosa). The state is the cradle of rocketry; Robert W. Goddard engineered and then lobbed small rockets into the sky not too far from where the storied UFO crashed in the arid high plains of the southeast, ejecting its almond-eyed alien pilots.
There's another first for this “Land of Enchantment,” as our license plates say, that goes uncelebrated and remains largely unknown. This nation's first trout was recorded in writing here. A full four centuries before Oppenheimer's guys tinkered with atoms secreted away on the Manhattan Project, at least one of the Spaniards in the Coronado Expedition was thinking about truchas.
With sights set on the fabled seven cities of Cibola, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and his conquistadores bivouacked at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near the confluence of Glorieta Creek and the Pecos River in the presence of an Indian Pueblo in 1541. It was here that Coronado's lieutenant, Pedro Casteneda, witnessed Rio Grande cutthroat trout (Onchorynchus clarki virginalis) swimming about. He chronicled, in Spanish of course, this for the expedition: "Cicuye (today’s now abandoned Pecos Pueblo) is located in a small valley between snowy mountain ranges and mountains covered with big pines. There is a little stream which abounds in excellent trout and otters, and there are large bears and good falcons hereabouts."
Photo Credit: © Michael Graybrook
In the here and now, the otters are gone. The grizzly bears, extirpated. Peregrine falcon populations took a dive, but have come back. With much irony, lore has it that the last grizzly in New Mexico was killed in the mountains above Glorieta Creek in the 1930s. While the trout remains, much within the native range of this first trout has changed. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout has retreated to headwater brooks in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado—a bare minimum swims about compared to what existed when Casteneda put ink on paper. It’s all happened in a slow and steady stream of events—both human-caused and natural—over the centuries.
The odd and the ancient seem so peculiarly juxtaposed with the nuevo and the ordinary in New Mexico. On the face of it, life here seems so enchanting and enduring, but in the end it’s not so durable. This became evident this past summer when the Las Conchas fire scorched hundreds of thousands of wooded acres in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, where my family settled about 1890.
I have these notions of how my ancestor Theodore Springer lived in these mountains in the small town of Bland. I suspect that Theodore, and then maybe my grand dad who lived there into the 1920s, may have caught native Rio Grande cutthroat trout before they were inadvertently replaced with Appalachian trout. I recollect camping there as a kid, hearing Mexican spotted owls (Strix occidentalis lucida) at night, the whisper of winds over the conifers, and the spattering of water pouring over stones in the canyon bottom in nothing more than a silver rill. We caught brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) there that sparkled fresh from the water, teased out of little plunge pools probably not big enough to hold a handful of trout. My kin could have caught Jemez Mountains salamanders (Plethodon neomexicanus) from under dank downed logs on the steep hillsides.
Photo Credit: © Jayson Coil, www.jaysoncoil.com
I have wondered about these things and it’s all speculative. But this much is known: it’s all gone. The Las Conchas fire turned the historic town of Bland into a pile of ash. The forest had the same fate. Ponderous aspens that reached into the blue for golden sun now have turned to ghostly gray husks of their former self. Then the summer monsoons came. What were historic buildings under vegetative bowers and habitats for owls and amphibians and fish then transfigured into a slurry of ash and mud, a roiling loud mush slugging its way down slope into the Rio Grande. In a tiny spot of time, it’s gone.
This place of “firsts” might also be the place of extremes—too much or too little—and so it’s been across the country in the year 2011. As the Las Conchas fire roared through the Jemez Mountains, devastating wildfires swept across the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and the rain-starved grasslands of central Texas. While fire is an important tool for managing healthy forests, years of fire suppression allowed wildfire fuel to amass. This, coupled with high temperatures and extremely dry conditions, made for the perfect storm. As western landscapes plumed into the atmosphere, record flooding inundated the Mississippi and Missouri River basins. These events affect people and certainly have bearing on conservation of species that need the most attention.
It will take time to fully understand the long-term impacts these sprawling infernos will have on everything from the threatened Apache trout (Oncorhynchus apache) to the endangered Houston toad (Bufo houstonensis), and what the chaotic flooding throughout the heart of the country will mean for species like the threatened decurrent false aster (Boltonia decurrens) to the endangered interior least tern (Sterna antillarum).
All of these organisms—the trout, the rare plants, the birds—they are all expressions of epochs past and they carry with them the lexis from which they have come, and for what they need going forward. Going forward from here, knowing that a place that had the imprint of a former time could so easily be lost impresses upon one that there is nothing slow and steady about such massive and dramatic events.
Craig Springer is a fish biologist and editor of Eddies magazine (www.fws.gov/eddies).
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