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A Talk on the Wild Side.

The Apache Trout has Gone from Anonymity to the State Fish of Arizona

Bradley Clarkson holds a brood fish.
Bradley Clarkson, a White Mountain Apache Tribe member and Service apache trout biologist, holds a brood fish. Photo by Craig Springer/USFWS  

By Craig Springer

Blue meandering lines on maps of eastern Arizona tell a story about the shape of the land and the interactions people have with it. They symbolize the streams that vein off the White Mountains and pour downhill to their inevitable juncture with something larger that may sport another colorful name.

The streams form patterns on the maps that please the eye. Their names stir the imagination. There’s no poverty of spirit in some of the labels: Hurricane, Moon, Sun, Stinky, Firebox, Paradise, Soldier, Crooked, Peasoup. These waters harbor some of the last remaining populations of the pretty Apache trout, found nowhere else but in streams that rim the White Mountains of Arizona.

The threatened Apache trout is named for the people. The yellow trout ornamented with black spots, a white-tipped anal fin, and sometimes a raccoon-like eye mask lives naturally only in the headwaters of the White, Black and Little Colorado rivers near the New Mexico border.

Sportsmen and -women were some of the earliest conservationists and remain among its most dependable supporters, so the Service is dedicated to encouraging fishing and hunting and other types of outdoor recreation. Outdoor recreation, including observing or photographing wildlife, hiking and boating, are also key drivers of both conservation and the nation’s economy.

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The fish has been well known to anglers for some time. Local farmers and ranchers made forays into the high country in summer to catch them. One correspondent, simply “J.H.” from Show Low, Arizona, wrote in a July 1886 issue of the St. John’s Herald: “I speak truly when I say it was the most enjoyable period of my life.” He recounted how he and his pals caught scads of Apache trout from the White River during a prolonged summer outing.

The Apache trout had become known to science a few years earlier, in 1873, when it was collected by members of the U.S. Geographical Survey, though it was wrongly identified as a Colorado River cutthroat trout. Other scientists collected the yellow trout from the White Mountains from time to time, but it wasn’t until a century later in 1972 that the fish was properly recognized as a unique species and assigned its current scientific and common names. A year later it was placed on the endangered species list.

   Jake Washburn and Inez Clawson The Service’s Jake Washburn and Inez Clawson of the White Mountain Apache Tribe Game and Fish collect eDNA from an Apache trout stream. Photo by USFWS    

That recent scientific description doesn’t mean that others had not already known that the trout was something significant. The White Mountain Apache Tribe was prescient, the first to conserve the fish, closing Apache trout streams to angling in the 1940s. By that time, the trout had been reduced to a mere 30 miles of streams all within the confines of their Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

Places everywhere have their scars, and the White Mountains are no exception. The loss of habitat from excessive timbering was detrimental to the native Apache trout. Poorly managed cattle trampled stream banks and reduced shrubs that would cool trout waters in their shade. Abusive land uses accelerated topsoil erosion into Apache trout streams. High sedimentation during the spring runoff affected trout reproduction; fine sediments clogged porous gravel beds where oxygen-rich water should percolate over incubating Apache trout eggs.

To make matters worse, non-native brown trout, brook trout and rainbow trout were stocked into Apache trout streams. All three species out-compete the native fish for food and spaces to live, and rainbow trout hybridize with Apache trout.

Over the last 75 years, starting with the actions of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, followed by its work with the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department, Apache trout populations have rallied. The future looks sunny for the species; it could one day be the first sport fish to be recovered and removed from federal protection.

Conservation work continues. Cattle have been fenced out of select Apache trout streams within the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and along streams within the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Non-native sport fishes are no longer stocked near Apache trout waters. Alchesay-Williams Creek National Fish Hatchery, located on the reservation, continues to raise Apache trout for sport fishing. Apache trout from the federal facility are stocked on the reservation, and they are shared with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to be stocked in neighboring national forest waters. Many streams are open to anglers.

Service biologists remain shin-deep in Apache trout work, striving toward that goal of recovering the species. They expend a great deal of energy removing non-native brown trout and brook trout from Apache trout waters. They accomplish this with backpack-mounted electrofishing gear with which the unwanted fish are stunned and then netted from high mountain streams.

   Alchesay-Williams Creek National Fish Hatchery signAlchesay-Williams Creek National Fish Hatchery produces Apache trout. Photo by Craig Springer/USFWS

A new technology known as environmental DNA guides their work. Fish shed skin cells and excrete bodily waste, both of which contain the animal’s DNA. That DNA can be detected in the water. Biologists analyze stream water from several sites over long reaches, and the results specify which stream sections contain the unwanted, non-native trout.

Periodic monitoring continues. Where unwanted, non-native fishes occur downstream, barriers keep them at bay below and the pure Apache trout populations above. Barriers exist on 23 creeks.

At present, Apache trout exist in 28 populations and swim in 170 miles of stream. The lot of this native fish has changed significantly over time. In what is really only a brief period, the species has transcended from anonymity and mistaken identity, to the point when the White Mountain Apache Tribe waded in to protect this key part of their natural heritage to becoming the official state fish of Arizona.

CRAIG SPRINGER, External Affairs Southwest Region



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