A band of iridescent refugees recently made homeless by a catastrophic wildfire made an extraordinary journey in the shadow of extinction.
As the worst wildfire in New Mexico history swept over their homes, they headed for Arizona via helicopter and truck — before being stuffed into backpacks for the final leg of an odyssey of survival.
The survivors in question consisted of about 200 Gila trout, one of two native Arizona trout species brought back from the spillway of extinction in the past 40 years.
“We were afraid we were going to lose the whole lineage,” said Arizona Game and Fish Fisheries Branch Manager Kirk Young of the small, wary golden Gila trout living in Spruce Creek and its tributaries in the Gila Wilderness Area.
A lightning-caused, 170,000-acre wildfire has burned through the wilderness area that contains most of the surviving populations of Gila trout, close relatives of species like the rainbow trout.
The heat of the flames can kill trout directly in small, shallow pools, but most of the damage will come with the monsoon and winter rains. The mud and debris sluicing off the denuded slopes will likely smother many of the small streams in which the Gila trout have persisted since the last Ice Age.
The fire represents a major setback to the recovery effort launched with the listing of the species as endangered in 1967. The effort succeeded so well that the species has been down listed to “threatened,” with populations of the New Mexico fish established in a handful of Arizona streams — including the Blue River in the White Mountains, Grapevine Creek near Mayer and three streams running off peaks of the Pinnealo Mountains near Safford. That includes Frye Creek, which flows into a small lake where Game and Fish maintains a catch-and-release fishery for the elusive natives.
But the mudslides that often swallow up creeks after major wildfires have haunted the reintroduction efforts. Such floods caused the tragic loss of a painfully reintroduced population of Gila trout in Dude Creek. Runoff from another fire wiped out a second Arizona population in Raspberry Creek, which drains into the Blue River.
Biologists were determined not to let that fate overtake the trout in the Gila Wilderness.
The voracious spread of the New Mexico wildfire to more than 260 square miles seemed to threaten just such a nightmare, after years of effort to safeguard the gleaming gold native trout, not even recognized as a species until the 1950s.
“The fire in New Mexico burned through the entire drainage,” said Young.
Biologists began making frantic phone calls, trying to find a new, safe stream to which they could move the wild offspring of an ancient, endangered lineage.
Fortunately, the Arizona Game and Fish Department had been working for several years to find additional streams into which it could stock a resilient, hard-fighting fish that once occupied most of the streams and tributaries in the far-flung Gila River system.
The Arizona biologists told their counterparts in New Mexico they could put the refugees in Ash Creek. The stream drains off the sky island of Mt. Graham, which towers above the town of Safford — about 158 miles southeast of Payson. Runoff after a fire years earlier had already killed off all the non-native fish that had once lived in that stream — and probably contributed to the elimination of Gila trout there.
“So New Mexico Game and Fish went in and pulled as many fish out of Spruce Creek as they could,” said Young. The biologists there used nets and electro shocking as they moved from pool to pool as the charred forest smoldered on the slopes above. They removed about 300 fish and earmarked 200 for new homes.
A helicopter dangling 55-gallon drums airlifted the trout from the stream to a hatchery. From there, they were loaded into fish-stocking trucks with oxygen pumps for the drive to Safford.
At the top of a trail leading down toward Ash Creek, a sturdy band of Game and Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees shouldered specially designed backpacks with five-gallon water tanks and battery-powered bubblers to keep the fish alive. Each biologist then staggered down the trail with a 50-pound pack of Gila trout.
Young said the fish survived the ordeal surprisingly well.
“We expect some mortality, since normally you don’t have such a back-to-back ordeal for the fish. We grabbed them in New Mexico and flew them out the next day, with the hatchery truck driving overnight.”
The Gila trout are closely related to the Apache trout, another Arizona native that has made a remarkable comeback. Both species have been separated from other trout for thousands of years, evolving different colors and behaviors. However, they’ll still readily interbreed with rainbow trout, which means a stream has to be cleared of non-native trout before a pure strain of Gila or Apache trout can survive there.
During the Ice Age when wet conditions created links between watersheds, a single species of native trout probably occupied almost all of the high, cold streams in Arizona and New Mexico. As conditions dried out, the Apache trout in the Salt River drainage and the Gila trout in the Gila River drainage got separated and evolved.
“You probably had a bunch of different-looking fish, all of them with the same ancestor,” said Young. Game and Fish hopes to eventually spread the Gila trout to enough streams to make it safe and self-sustaining — following in the fin-waggle of the Apache trout. The Gila trout have proven more difficult to raise in hatcheries, having retained many of their wild ways, making last week’s recovery effort all the more important.
Already, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has established a catch-and-release fishery for Gila trout in a small reservoir at the foot of Frye Creek near Safford. People come from all over the world to fish the reservoir and add the unique native trout to their life list.
Stocking Ash Creek with the latest refugees means that four different creeks running off Mt. Graham now have Gila trout.
Those trout will likely now have a tall fish tale to tell their fingerlings, after their epic journey by helicopter, truck and backpack — at least those who survive and adapt to the new stream.
Young observed, “I guess it’s a little bit of a fitness test for the fish — natural selection,” with a little bit of help from their friends.