Gila Trout: An Iconic Western Species on the Brink
Gila trout are of critical importance not only to the evolution of the desert southwest, but to the history and cultural identity of the region. Native American tribes have long recognized the ecological importance of these fish, which live in remote, high desert streams. (So remote that the Apache leader Geronimo and his warriors hid from the U.S. Army in these areas in the 1880s.) Early western settlers affectionately described Gila trout as “yellow bellies,” noting their distinctive coloration and spotting. Throughout the 1900s, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts traveled hundreds of miles just to catch (or catch a glimpse) of this truly unique species.
Unfortunately, over the years, more than 95% of its’ habitat was destroyed by livestock grazing, logging, road construction and wildfires. The widespread introduction of brook, brown and rainbow trout also led to its’ decline. In 1973, the Gila trout was officially listed as an Endangered Species.
From the Desert Springs Forth Hope
What has happened since that listing is a story of collaboration that offers a glimmer of hope for all who have become disillusioned with the divisions and dysfunction that grabs our country’s headlines. By working together, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, the New Mexico and Arizona Departments of Game and Fish, conservation groups and hundreds of volunteers have managed to restore the Gila trout. In some cases, the efforts made by these groups were nothing short of a miracle. After the Whitewater-Baldy fire burned nearly 300,000 acres, agency staff and volunteers used mules to travel into brutally rugged terrain to rescue isolated populations of Gila trout.
Key to the recovery has been the work of the Mora National Fish Hatchery, which has kept brood stocks of Gila trout for restocking. Thanks to the cooperation and work of these agencies, conservation organizations and spiritual leaders, the Gila trout was down-listed from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2006. Special provisions were created to allow limited fishing, with the hope that southwestern communities will lead the final preservation efforts that will result in the full recovery of the Gila trout.