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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Gila Trout Swim Mineral Creek

 helicopter with big tank hanging beneath it
Gila trout arrive at the treetops over Mineral Creek. Photo by Craig Springer/USFWS

How do you move a thousand captive-raised fish from their hatchery to their release site miles away? Answer: Carefully! It helps to have a helicopter, too. That’s what it took (along with a big truck and a lot of shoe leather) to get that many Gila trout safely out to the remote headwaters of Mineral Creek, well inside the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico.

On November 18, the Service, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and U.S. Forest Service released the young Gila trout, ranging from 6 inches to a foot in length, into Mineral Creek. These rare, yellow trout were spawned, hatched and raised in captivity in 2015 and 2016 at the Service’s Mora National Fish Hatchery. Hatchery fish are carefully paired and spawned to maximize genetic diversity of offspring, improving chances of their survival in the wild. The captive fish were also purposely subjected to rigorous swimming conditions in the hatchery to further ensure their fitness when released.

These trout traveled by truck eight hours to meet a helicopter at the Gila National Forest’s Glenwood Ranger Station. The aircraft made multiple flights carrying an aerated tank at the end of a long line, each time full of Gila trout. Biologists from the three agencies had hiked several miles into the rugged country to meet the trout and place them in the cool, shaded runs and pools of Mineral Creek, a tributary of the San Francisco River near Alma, New Mexico.

   Andy Dean releases Gila trout into Mineral Creek.
  Andy Dean releases Gila trout into Mineral Creek. Photo by Craig Springer/USFWS

This release is a large step forward in conserving Gila trout, which live only in New Mexico and Arizona along the Mogollon Rim, notes Andy Dean, lead Gila trout biologist with the Service’s New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. “This repatriation into Mineral Creek adds another stream to harbor Gila trout, as outlined as a necessity in the Gila Trout Recovery Plan,” he says.  “Not only does this add a population within the San Francisco River drainage, it also helps establish Gila trout populations across a larger geographical area. More Gila trout over a larger area adds greater security to this rare fish.”

That desired security will be achieved when the Mineral Creek population is naturally reproducing, and fish of multiple ages swim its waters, perhaps in 2018.

Mineral Creek came to the attention of biologists as a candidate stream to receive Gila trout after the massive Whitewater-Baldy Fire of 2012. Destructive as it was, the forest fire actually made Mineral Creek suitable for Gila trout. The fire burned in the headlands of the stream and summer rains washed a slurry of ash and debris down the creek, removing unwanted competing non-native fishes. Though the mountain slopes and streamside vegetation are not fully stabilized post-fire, sufficient habitat exists to harbor Gila trout in Mineral Creek.  With so few suitable streams available to repatriate Gila trout in the watershed, biologists seized the opportunity.

Mineral Creek was not the only stream to receive Gila trout from Mora National Fish Hatchery this autumn.  More than 8,600 Gila trout were placed in several other waters to advance the species’ recovery and entice anglers to go after native trout in native habitats of southwest New Mexico. 

The Gila trout is protected under the Endangered Species Act. The species was listed as endangered in 1973, and due to conservation measures, was downlisted to threatened in 2006. A year later, select Gila trout populations were opened to angling for the first time in 50 years. 

Craig Springer, External Affairs, Southwest Region


Fish & Wildlife News   This article is a preview of the winter issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine. The issue is due online in finished form in early February.

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