Endangered Fish Returned To Rim Country Creek


Here's a fish story for you. It's about the one that got away 100 years ago, but came back Wednesday to inhabit the remote upper reaches of Dude Creek -- an area of the Tonto National Forest that was devastated by fire nine years ago.

Some 120 endangered Gila trout, which have been extinct in Arizona for nearly a century, were brought back to Arizona Wednesday through the cooperative efforts of six public and private agencies, including the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, U.S. Forest Service and Mogollon Sportsmen.

The fish were scooped out of Spruce Creek in New Mexico -- one of two creeks in that state that are home to the yellow-green, black-spotted Gila trout -- and were transported to Dude Creek northeast of Whispering Pines by truck and by helicopter.

Some 300 fingerlings, that were supposed to make the trip from New Mexico's Mora Hatchery to Arizona, had contracted a disease, said Cheryl Carrothers, wildlife biologist for the Payson Ranger District, and will be transferred at a later time.

Carrothers said efforts to return the Gila trout to Arizona began in 1994.

"It's wonderful to go from catastrophic loss to this recovery," she said. "The habitat (Dude Creek) has recovered to such an extent that it can now support this endangered fish."

The fish in Dude Creek were killed off in 1990 by ash runoff from the Dude Fire -- a lightning-caused blaze that killed six firefighters and destroyed more than 24,000 acres of forest and 63 homes.

All life seemed to stop in the area.

"We've seen the recovery of the elk," Carrothers said. "It's super quality habitat now for elk and bear, turkey, woodpeckers and deer. Even the white-tailed deer are coming down into some of this country."

The Tonto National Forest is already home to a number of other protected species -- including 60 pair of Mexican spotted owls and 20 pair of northern goshawks.

Now, 100 years after competition and interbreeding with non-native fish wiped out the Gila trout, they're back in Arizona.

Carrothers said natural barriers in the upper pools of the creek will prevent other fish from coming back to Dude Creek. The creek goes underground two miles downstream from the headwaters.

"If we get too much water, the fish will be washed downstream where they'll go down to the East Verde and eventually to the Verde River," she said. "And that's okay. There'll be enough left to keep repopulating the stream."

Some 50 spectators -- state and federal officials, media representatives, environmentalists and nearby residents -- awaited the fish at the creek.

At 2 p.m., just as scheduled, a helicopter appeared in the sky, trailing a basket at the end of a long rope.

On the ground beside the creek, a yellow tarmac marked one of four landing zones. The basket was carefully lowered to the ground, and wildlife specialists used nets to fill white plastic containers with the precious cargo.

Six-year-old Michael Behrens was one of those helping put the fish in the water. He and his family, who traveled from Mesa to be at the event, donated money to the Gila trout project in memory of Michael's grandfather, Rodney Rish. It was enough to pay for the helicopter that hovered above them.

"He loved fishing," Michael said. "And he used to take me on trips. He might have been here even, watching the fish."

The Gila trout had lost their color because of a chemical in the water in which they were transported. It was added to the water to protect the fish from stress and disease, but the trout were otherwise healthy.

Carrothers talked about the insects the fish would feed upon, the caddis fly, dragonflies, damsel and May flies. They, too, were part of the recovery of Dude Creek.

"We went in right after the fire, within 30 days," she said. "It was like a moonscape -- all the trees were black. When we stepped in the ash, it just kind of puffed up. The trees appeared as if the sap in them had boiled and blown the bark off."

Wayne Stutzman, a nearby Cowan Ranch resident, was at the Gila trout re-introduction along with another resident, Richard Clemmer.

"I'm just here because I love this spot," he said.

"My neighbor, Al Kendall, and I were the first ones here at the Dude Fire. In fact, I heard the thunder before the lightning hit. I said to my wife, 'You'd better get the insurance policies together.' That night, I never slept. Out our back window we could see the red sky. It was quite an adventure, I'll tell you."

Stutzman recalled the rainbow and brown trout that were in the creek before the fire. "They were beautiful," he said. "I didn't fish for those trout because they were little."

Stutzman and others won't be able to fish for the Gila trout either. They're still endangered. But in four or five years, when the population has re-established itself in Arizona, they may be taken off the endangered species list.

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