The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to establish thousands of threatened Gila trout in a three-mile stretch of Haigler Creek, residents learned at a recent meeting.
Water diversions and an invasion of non-native fish had nearly exterminated the iridescent gold native Arizona trout by 1975, triggering an effort to save the beautiful relative of the rainbow and other trout species.
Gila trout usually grow to about a foot long, but can reach nearly two feet in length.
Listed as endangered in 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led an effort to raise the trout in a New Mexico fish hatchery and reintroduce them in a handful of streams in the Gila River drainage. The effort worked well enough to change the listing to “threatened” in 2006.
The alliance of state and federal officials continues to seek streams in which the insect-eating native trout can thrive. That generally means going in and removing all of the non-native fish in the stream, including competing rainbow and brown trout.
The three-mile stretch of spring-fed Haigler Creek below the hike-in trail at Fisherman Point offers a perfect place to plant a population of the gleaming native fish — and perhaps even to establish a recreational fishery that could draw anglers from all over the country, said Julie Canter, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The plan calls for perhaps electro-shocking and relocating non-native fish like the big wild brown trout and stocked rainbow trout that inhabit the stream now.
Federal officials would build fish barriers to keep non-native fish from repopulating the stream as they introduced not only Gila trout, but also other threatened native fish like Sonoran suckers, headwater chub, humpback chub and others.
“We want to do more species,” she said, “a whole assemblage of native fish.”
About a dozen people attended the information session in the Payson Public Library. Most were enthusiastic fishermen, many with a deep interest in the hard-to-reach stretch of Haigler Creek that harbors pools, riffles and some lunker brown trout — stocked into Rim Country streams years ago and now reproducing on their own.
“You are going to take a lot of really nice (non-native) fish out of there,” said one angler, “some three-pound fish. There are very few areas where you can walk into in 20 minutes and find that — pristine places with reasonably short access. If I thought that I could have the same kind of experience, I could accept it better in my mind that those three-pound brown trout are going to get rotenoned.”
He was referring to rotenone, a chemical used to kill off any creatures in a creek that breathe through gills. The chemical dissipates quickly, but in additional to suffocating gill breathers it can cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms at high doses in laboratory animals. Arizona Game and Fish biologists used the chemical recently to kill non-native bass that had somehow gotten over a fish barrier and invaded the lower two miles of Fossil Creek — one of the premier native fish refuges in the Southwest.
The state and federal government spent some $200,000 first electro-shocking to capture as many native chubs and suckers as possible and then applying the chemical to protect the native fish upstream.
Non-native fish like bass and catfish have displaced native fish like chub and suckers on most Arizona warm-water streams.
By the same token, the stocking of huge number of hatchery-grown rainbow trout and the earlier stocking of fish-eating brown trout have largely displaced the native Gila and Apache trout. The stocked rainbow trout compete for most of the same food and interbreed with both the Apache and Gila trout, swamping them genetically. Brown trout are voracious predators on the young of other fish. Since both the rainbow and brown trout spawn in the fall, their young from one year quickly gobble up the spring-hatching fry of the Apache and Gila trout. As a result, the native trout quickly disappear in streams with rainbow or brown trout.
Years of effort have succeeded in restoring viable populations of the Apache trout, mostly in the streams of the White Mountains — the wettest region in the Southwest. A joint effort by the state and federal governments plus the White Mountain Apache Tribe has established self-sustaining populations of Apache trout. Their numbers have grown so well that anglers can fish for them along certain streams, like the White River and Silver Creek and Christmas Tree Lake on the Apache Reservation.
The Gila trout haven’t done as well. In part, that’s because they historically lived in the lower-elevation reaches of the Gila River system, plus the headwaters of the Verde, San Francisco and Agua Fria rivers. Those streams have all been hammered by water diversions, drought, mines, fires, logging, grazing, stocking of non-native fish and other activities that are hard on trout.
A survey in 1975 found just five populations of the trout swimming against the current of extinction on about 20 miles of stream in five tributaries of the Gila River in New Mexico. Perhaps 7,500 of the trout were left alive in the world.
Thanks to the listing and recovery effort, by 1985 the Gila trout population had increased to about 18,000 to 26,000 in nine populations — one in Arizona and eight in New Mexico.
However, the dramatic rise in catastrophic wildfires in the past 20 years has set the reintroduction effort back repeatedly. The trout evolved in ecosystems adapted to periodic, low-intensity wildfires. Those fires would burn off excess brush and actually enhanced the recycling of nutrients in the system. But grazing eliminated the grass that carried those fires and also trampled, broadened and warmed many streams. Without the grass, millions of acres became overgrown. In these conditions, the number and extent of crown fires increased. Those fires burned down to bare earth and superheated the soil, making it resistant to absorbing water. As a result, mudflows often followed major fires — smothering many of the creeks where Gila trout had been reintroduced.
Repeated major fires have several times nearly wiped out all the fish in the streams in New Mexico where the Gila trout had done the best. After the Dude Fire in Rim Country, mud flows wiped out a small population of Gila trout that had been established in Dude Creek.
Immediately after major wildfires in New Mexico threatened to wipe out yet another once-thriving population of Gila trout, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured and then airlifted to Arizona several thousand trout. They put the trout in streams on Mt. Graham and in Frye Reservoir at
the base of the mountain near Safford. The trout have done so well that anglers can go there to fish for them.
Besides saving the species, backers hope that the establishment of healthy populations of Apache and Gila trout might attract anglers from all over the country, eager for a unique fishing experience.
State and federal biologists hope that establishing a population of Gila trout in Haigler Creek will protect against a disastrous wildfire in New Mexico that could wipe out multiple populations of the recovering native trout.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will gather comments on the proposed conversion of Haigler Creek into a native fish refuge centered on Gila trout for the next month or so. If no one raises serious objections, consultants and biologists will prepare an environmental assessment of the proposal. That assessment will determine whether the project would face any big environmental problems — and what effects putting the native fish back into the creek might have.
As a result, biologists won’t likely actually start removing the non-native fish for another year or two. Once they stock about 3,000 Gila trout flown in from the New Mexico hatchery, the fish will likely need two or three years to get used to the creek and establish a self-sustaining population. If the fish adapt, then the Game and Fish Department will consider establishment of a fishery, to give anglers a chance to catch a beautiful, wary, hard-fighting fish found almost nowhere else in the world.