The past, present, & future of New Mexico


Mar 11, 2001
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The past, present, and future of New Mexico's native fisheries

Friday, December 21, 2001.

By Craig Springer, ENN

Watching that sense of wonder in my boy's eyes, that sense of discovery endemic to youth, invigorates me; it stirs the essence of my being like no other experience can. Most every parent knows that sense of immense responsibility — and with it, that sense of immense opportunity — as they watch them mature all too quickly.

Carson's certainly not old enough to cast a fly rod, but he gets a good view of the action riding on my back. I've got to be especially careful with casting and with streamside willow whips. Carson was with me last summer on a trip to Jacks Creek, a tributary in the Pecos headwaters. The object of my affection: native Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

Truchas is Spanish for trout, and it seemed like a good omen that the snow-tipped Truchas Peak held watch over us amid jittery aspens and stalwart spruces. Truchas Peak reaches into the sky, capturing winter storms that all summer feed the cold creeks that cutthroats call home. The high country of northern New Mexico is a spiritual, renewing place.

On our way back home we stopped for respite at the old general store at Terrero, the only building remaining from a once-prosperous mountain mining town. Sitting on a bench out front, little Carson was entertained by a dozen or so hummingbirds that buzzed between feeders, sounding more like big baritone wasps than birds. A slobbering yellow Lab eagerly waited for him to drop a peanut butter cracker. Her otter-shaped tail slapped in perfect time. The store-front eave kept us dry from a gentle afternoon thunderstorm, while the Pecos River gurgled its music, gliding over rocks on its way to feed centuries-old acequias and modern reservoirs. For a moment the past married the future; I wanted time to stand still.

New Mexico is steeped in history, and just a few miles downstream of where we sat, Europeans made the first record of trout in the New World. Four hundred and sixty years ago, Pedro CastaZeda, a member of the Coronado Expedition, witnessed Rio Grande cutthroat trout swimming about Glorieta Creek. He wrote in his journal, "[Pecos Pueblo] is located in a small valley between snowy mountain ranges and mountains covered with big pines. There is a little stream which abounds in excellent trout and otters."

Elliot Barker, best known for his many books on hunting and fishing and conservation in early New Mexico, traipsed over these mountains circa 1900. He grew up on the east flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and hunted and fished the Pecos headwaters as a ranch kid. Under the tutelage of Aldo Leopold, Barker worked in the fledgling Forest Service. Later he had charge of the wildlife as director of New Mexico Game and Fish, a job he held from 1931 to 1953. In his many books, Barker chronicled grizzly bear hunts, Airedales and cougars, and catching copious cutthroat trout in the tiny creeks. Barker's words are glimpses of history, a window into the past.

Those days are gone, I'm afraid. Gone are the grizzlies and the otters; gone, too, are many of the native trout. Glorieta Creek is but a sandy wash.

My great-grandfather Theodore Springer came to New Mexico in the 1870s to extract its mineral wealth. And like so many of his contemporaries, his mark on the land was indelible. A wave of Anglo-American immigrants to New Mexico changed the cultural and physical landscape forever. Our native fisheries were not immune.

Not long after Theodore showed up in New Mexico, much of the native cutthroat trout habitat was stepped on by the heavy boots of logging, mining, grazing, and irrigation farming. In the absence of grocers, early setters lived off the land, in part by taking trout from streams. Unfettered harvest of native fisheries led to the eventual restocking of trout already domesticated, namely rainbow and brook trout, species native to the Pacific Northwest and to Appalachia. Habitat loss coupled with competition and hybridization wrought by nonnative fishes nearly rang a death knell for our native cutthroats.

With a youngster on my knee, it's hard not to think about the future. He is a vestige of the past, yet he embodies what the future holds: hope and promise. I hope for his sake and for the sake of his long lineage in New Mexico that he, too, will enjoy the woods and waters that I love. That hope for our native trout manifests itself in work done by my colleagues, the scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's fish technology centers. Two of our nation's seven fish technology centers are located in New Mexico; one is a stone's throw from where CastaZeda put pen to paper.

The Mora National Fish Hatchery and Technology Center will figure prominently in conserving Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Hatcheries by their very nature use a lot of water. But the Mora facility is equipped with leading-edge water recirculation technology that makes fish propagation practical in arid climes. More than 2 billion gallons of water are saved annually via the technology, enough water to supply the needs of 1,570 households for one year. Formal cooperative agreements between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New Mexico Game and Fish call for Mora to establish a brood stock of Rio Grande cutthroat trout and provide fish culture training to other biologists. That's in the near future. But this fish has already already benefited from technology.

Whirling disease, caused by an exotic parasite, has reared its ugly head in New Mexico. The disease attacks and often debilitates young trout, sometimes causing death. In the face of that threat, the Mora Fish Technology Center met the challenge by creating a quarantine system, still using recirculated water, that allows the facility to hold new fish from the wild until they are disease-free.

It has already come in handy. Rio Grande cutthroats from the Canadian River drainage were spawned in quarantine to produce disease-free eggs for New Mexico Game and Fish to use for restoration. During the intense fire season of 2000, New Mexico Game and Fish biologists rescued an important population of Rio Grande cutthroats from Cow Creek in the Pecos drainage. In the face of fire, the fish were taken to the Mora facility, where they remain in isolation until habitat is recovered for their trip back home.

While New Mexico Game and Fish renovates its Seven Springs Hatchery near Fenton Lake, the Mora facility holds a large lot of native cutthroats, that hatchery's eventual brood stock. The genetic integrity of that brood stock may be in question though. To me, some fish appear hybridized with rainbow trout — and that is a question of major importance that needs to be answered. In fact, the genetic integrity of many wild and captive populations of cutthroats needs to be examined by federal and state scientists to locate pure Rio Grande cutthroat trout DNA. Its importance cannot be overstated.

Technology available at the Dexter National Fish Hatchery & Technology Center near Roswell, N.M., will help meet that challenge, again by cooperative agreement. A DNA sequencer, an apparatus that helps scientists essentially identify the genetic lineage of animals, could help find pieces in a puzzle. The Dexter facility has the equipment and the human know-how. It's already been proven on another fish species native to New Mexico, the bonytail.

Native to the Colorado River basin, bonytail once occurred in New Mexico's Zuni River and quite possibly in the San Juan River. They no longer live here but do persist in the Colorado River proper, albeit precariously endangered. Very few bonytail remain in the wild, and Dexter Fish Technology Center hosts a brood stock whose young are repatriated into the wild. With so few fish remaining, and to do the best job possible, the DNA technology is absolutely essential for sound conservation.

It seems so incongruous that the state fish of New Mexico, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, should be a species in need of restoration. But their numbers are down drastically from what they were when my son's great-great-grandfather showed up here. No doubt I see our natural resources in a different light than did our progenitors. But I also see a future. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 130 years of fisheries conservation under its belt. Applied leading-edge science is my hope that Carson will have the opportunity when I am an old man to help me wade a high-country stream, casting for Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

Craig Springer is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fishery biologist. He has a master's degree in fisheries science from the University of Arizona, where he researched smallmouth bass behavior. Springer is also a candidate for a master's degree in writing and rhetoric at the University of New Mexico. He is a contributing editor for the Grouse Point Almanac, conservation editor for Flyfisher, science columnist for North American Fisherman, and executive director of the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Writers and Photographers.

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