Golden October days in the Gila Valley are marked by the haunting calls of returning Sandhill cranes. October also marks the month when fish surveys are annually conducted in the watershed.
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and partners, including The Nature Conservancy, have been surveying the Gila River to better understand fish populations for more than 20 years. I am happy to help out for a few days each year.
Unfortunately, the folks surveying for natives like Gila trout, spikedace and loachminnow this fall are not stretching the truth when they say that these fish are scarce.
When the Whitewater Baldy Fire was burning this spring, I encouraged people to think with open minds about fire’s positive and negative impacts.
Now fish are experiencing the negative impacts.
The water in the Gila and San Francisco rivers was first thick with ash and then with sediment. The Gila River seemed black all summer.
Part of the Gila and San Francisco rivers were bulldozed and rearranged for flood control, adding to the sediment load and degrading aquatic habitat.
Big fires that kill all the trees in enormous patches are tough on watersheds and fish, especially when native fish populations are already in trouble.
Gila trout are beautiful slim fish that live in cool and clear headwater streams of the Gila watershed, many of which are isolated from one another.
When I hike, I am always on the lookout, hoping to see them darting about in deep pools.
Jim Brooks, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, oversees the Gila trout recovery program in New Mexico (the only state where they live).
The Whitewater Baldy Fire had some significant impacts on Gila trout populations when ash poured into the Gila River’s West and Middle forks and filled pools with sediment.
Small genetically distinct populations of Gila trout are potentially gone, although significant efforts were made this summer to remove fish and take them to a hatchery for safe keeping, to be returned to their home when the water clears.
The Gila River is a stronghold for spikedace and loachminnow, two small endangered fish that live in the Lower Colorado River Basin. The Cliff-Gila Valley hosts particularly important populations of these fish.
Populations throughout the Lower Colorado River basin have steadily declined over the past decades while the Gila River’s populations have persisted, attributed largely to the intact natural flow patterns.
But this has been a rough year.
Early surveys in the summer suggested that some fish survived the first ash and sediment flows. But numbers have steadily declined during the past few months.
At the Iron Bridge Tract of the Conservancy’s Gila Riparian Preserve, we didn’t catch a single spikedace this October. Historically, we would have caught a few dozen and in wetter decades, hundreds.
Native fish in the Gila River watershed evolved to survive wildfires. Fire has been a part of this landscape for a very long time.
But recent fires are larger. The climate is drier.
The river is low right now, lower than it was during the big 1950s drought.
All these things stress our endangered native fish.
My hope is that in a river with connected habitat like the Gila, native fish have the ability to recolonize and hopefully rebound over time.