Forest Service Plans To Bring Back Rare Native Trout

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U.S. Forest Service officials want to hear what the public has to say about their plan to reintroduce the federally endangered Gila trout into the headwaters of Dude Creek this fall.

Wildlife specialists plan to stock hundreds of Gila trout from New Mexico into the creek, which drains into the East Verde River northeast of Whispering Pines subdivision, to re-establish the first Gila trout population in Arizona since early this century. Forest officials recently completed an environmental analysis detailing the impact the project might have on the area and the people who use it. The public has until Aug. 26 to register comments about the study with the Payson Ranger District.

The native Gila trout was crowded out of Arizona streams shortly after the turn of the century when non-native trout such as rainbows were introduced.

Those fish species were wiped out of Dude Creek in 1990 when the Dude Fire, a lightning-caused wildfire that burned more than 24,000 acres of public and private land, swept across the stream and killed the creek's entire fish population.

Now, nine years later, the creek is an ideal spot to reintroduce the Gila trout, said Don Pollock, head of the Payson Ranger District's wildlife staff. The creek is still free of rainbows and other competing fish, and the ecosystem has recovered enough to support the Gila trout.

Wildlife specialists in New Mexico harvested 200 Gila trout from Spruce Creek in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico for the project this spring, but lost all but 20 during a holding-tank accident at the Mescalero National Fish Hatchery.

"The accident at Mescalero was extremely disappointing," said Ren Lohoefener, assistant regional director for Arizona and New Mexico. "A great deal of time and effort went into the collection of these fish, which will be required again for future efforts."

Twenty fish, which were in a separate holding tank, survived the accident and spawned 1,800 eggs. About 1,000 are expected to hatch and survive to fingerling stage, and, barring any public objections, most of them will be reintroduced into Dude Creek this September. The greatest threats to the Gila trout, which have been reduced to five distinct lineages in the Gila River Basin in New Mexico, are competition and hybridization with non-native trout. Ongoing recovery efforts have met with mixed success, forest officials said.

The Spruce Creek strain of Gila trout can only be found in 3.5 miles of the Big Dry Creek Drainage in New Mexico, including two miles of Spruce Creek. Forest officials plan to stock the fish in other drainages and establish a captive population to serve as a stocking source for new streams.

The fish will then be eligible for downlisting under the Endangered Species Act from "endangered" to "threatened," a less severe category that would allow Arizona and New Mexico to open some Gila trout streams to recreational fishing.

Comments about the Gila trout reintroduction project can be mailed to Don Pollock, Payson Ranger District, 1009 East Highway 260, Payson, AZ 85541, or faxed to (520) 474-7966.

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