Biologists help rare fish flee New Mexico fire

Biologists help rare fish flee New Mexico fire

11 June 2009

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USA — As a lightning-sparked fire charred thousands of acres in southwestern New Mexico, biologists and firefighters used helicopters and trucks for an unusual evacuation.

They captured 250 Gila trout — a threatened species — from a creek in southwestern New Mexico and are moving them to a hatchery in the opposite corner of the state.

Ranger Al Coss of the Wilderness Ranger District said Wednesday was a perfect time to move the fish because the fire’s intensity had diminished and the flames were still a couple of miles from the South Diamond Creek.

“It is a unique situation, and it’s actually kind of exciting that we have this opportunity to do it,” Coss said. “We feel that being ahead of the game is much better than being behind the curve and trying to rush and put the firefighters and the biologists and the fish in jeopardy.”

Biologists rode to the creek on horseback, then used electroshocking devices to temporarily stun the trout so they could quickly scoop them into a net.

“You’ve got to be pretty fast,” said John Kramer, a staff member who has helped with two other fish relocations during his 20 years working on the Gila National Forest.

The fish were loaded into a large bucket and taken out of the wilderness via helicopter to a special truck waiting to ferry them to a hatchery in northern New Mexico.

Forest officials said after talking with the biologists late Wednesday that the mission was a success.

“The biologists are pretty efficient with the electroshockers,” Kramer said. “They will not get 100 percent of the fish, but they’ll get certainly the majority of the population.”

The fire has blackened nearly six square miles — more than 3,600 acres — in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness north of Silver City. Forest officials decided to evacuate the trout when the fire started moving toward the creek.

The fish can hide as the fire passes through the watershed, but Coss said the resulting ash could impact their habitat.

Forest officials are concerned about the Gila trout because it is classified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened. The fish — the only native trout in the Gila River — is found in a handful of counties in New Mexico and Arizona.

The population in the South Diamond Creek is a “pretty pure strain” of Gila trout, Coss said, making it that much more important to ensure the population’s genetics are safeguarded. He didn’t know how much moving the fish would cost.

The Gila trout was one of the original species listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. At that time, its range had been reduced to only four streams within the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Through recovery efforts, federal officials decided in 2006 to downlist the trout to threatened status.

The evacuated fish could end up staying at the Mora hatchery in northern New Mexico until the fall, forest officials said. After the fire, biologists will monitor the area to ensure that ash and sediment will not be washed into the creek by summer monsoons.

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