The endangered Gila trout, absent from the state for nearly 100 years, will be brought back to Arizona's waters Sept. 29 in a complicated maneuver that rivals any space mission.
The new home for the Gila trout will be Dude Creek, a tributary of the East Verde River that flows south from the base of the Mogollon Rim about a dozen miles north of Payson.
Arizona Game and Fish Department officials announced the historic re-introduction Tuesday.
A group of government agencies and sportsmen's associations have put together a plan that includes gathering 150 Gila trout from Spruce Creek in New Mexico, putting them in a container, attaching them to the long line of a helicopter and flying them to Glenwood, N.M.
At Glenwood, they'll transfer the fish to an Arizona hatchery truck. Another truck with an additional 300 fingerlings from a Mora, N.M. hatchery will also be enroute to the relocation site.
While the fish are being transported, the temperature of the water they'll be in will gradually be adjusted to match that of the Dude Creek temperature.
The healing process that combines the re-introduction of an endangered species to an area that has lost its fish inhabitants is the joint effort of the Arizona and New Mexico Game and Fish departments, the Payson-based Mogollon Sporting Association, Trout Unlimited, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Northern Arizona Flycasters.
Gary Barcom, a Payson resident and member of the Mogollon Sporting Association, said his group helped financially -- "and we'll be available on the day of the re-entry to help with manpower."
Payson Ranger District Ranger Steve Gunzel said the operation is unusual because the re-introduction of the endangered species will not interrupt other uses at the site.
"In this particular case, this is a real victory," Gunzel said. "The Arizona Game and Fish (Department) is going to introduce those trout in the stream and we'll continue the other uses in the area -- timber harvesting, tree planting, cattle grazing, recreational use and prescribed fires."
Gunzel said the main threat to the species in Arizona was hybridization -- cross breeding with rainbow trout and other species.
The black-spotted, golden-green Gila trout was eliminated at the turn of the century from headwater streams of the Agua Fria, Verde and San Francisco rivers in Arizona. A number of factors led to their decline and eventual elimination: the degradation of their habitats; over-fishing during the pioneer era; and the introduction of non-native trout.
Conservation efforts began for the species in 1923 in New Mexico with the construction of Jenks Cabin Fish Hatchery. The hatchery had limited success and closed in 1939. In 1970, McKnight Creek in New Mexico was reclaimed and converted to Gila trout habitat.
Today, Gila trout are thriving in 12 isolated streams in New Mexico where elevations range from 5,300 to 9,200 feet and water temperatures of up to 81 degrees have been recorded.
But fish and wildlife officials are not satisfied with the mere existence of the species. They want to establish other populations to ensure the Gila trout's lineage, a necessary step in taking the fish off the endangered species list. Once the Gila trout is downlisted, game and fish officials say they can provide for limited fishing opportunities. This could occur within four or five years of the Gila trout's stocking at Dude Creek.
Creek killed by fire
Gunzel said Dude Creek had been a good fishery and, although it is now recovering from the Dude Fire of 1990, it currently has no other fish. After the Dude Fire burned more than 24,000 acres on and below the Mogollon Rim in 1990, rain brought sediment and ash to Dude Creek, and the fish died.
Today, nine years after the fire, the streambanks and slopes of the creek have stabilized, reducing the sediment and allowing re-establishment of living organisms. Vegetation has come back and is dense along the creek bottom.
But the stream remains fishless because of barriers to their movement in the upper areas of the creek.
"It's nice that there are no other fish there now," Gunzel said. "It makes it easier to restock the stream."
Just after 2 p.m. on Sept. 29, ground crews will transfer the fish to a bucket at the long line of the helicopter. They'll be taken to a number of pools on Dude Creek, where they will be released back to their Arizona home.
"This is truly an historic occasion that culminates decades of biological work both in Arizona and New Mexico," said Arizona Game and Fish Dept. Director Duane Shroufe.
"It's a significant effort toward getting the species to recover," Gunzel said. "It's a neat deal all the way around. Everybody that's been involved with it is real pleased."