Trout habitat is decreasing. Even if you don't fish, here's why you should care

Trout species native to New Mexico could be especially imperiled by climate change as rising temperatures mean a decrease in cold water habitats.

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • A pair of 21st century reports claim trout habitat in the interior West could decline by 50 percent over the next 70 years.
  • The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is spending approximately $1 million a year to restore trout habitat.
  • Despite those efforts, two native New Mexico trout species remain in jeopardy.

FARMINGTON — Many species of native trout populate the streams and rivers of the Mountain West, but Toner Mitchell says they all share one very important trait.

They are an extremely hardy fish, and they have demonstrated remarkable adaptability over the eons, he says.

"That's trout in a nutshell," said Mitchell, a staff member for Trout Unlimited — a nonprofit organization that, for the last 60 years, has devoted itself to protecting and restoring the continent's cold-water fisheries and their watersheds. "They have a history of enduring extremes of cold and heat. Maybe if we buy them enough time, they can make it work."


One of Mitchell's associates, longtime Trout Unlimited volunteer and lifelong trout fisherman Arnold Atkins, says there's no disputing the fact that native trout are especially well adapted to their environment. He sees proof of that every time he catches a cutthroat or a brown. The brown trout is native to Europe while the cutthroat is native to the United States.

"The cutthroat are always larger and in better shape," he said. "They've spent 10,000 years or more learning to live in New Mexico, and these Europeans haven't figured it out yet."

As temperatures increase with climate change, the cold waters trout rely on are decreasing. This could prove challenging, even for a hardy fish like trout.

MORE:Climate change may mean fewer fish for sport fishing, more die-offs across US

An angler casts his line while fishing the Texas Hole, Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, on the San Juan River.

Mitchell devotes much of his time and effort at Trout Unlimited to working on and advocating for habitat restoration for New Mexico's native fish, including the state fish — the Rio Grande cutthroat trout — along with the Gila trout.

"We kind of serve as a partnership to the agencies in charge of such work," he said. "We're trying to fill in where they need us. But a lot of them suffer from competition and interbreeding with non-native species, like brown, rainbow and brook trout."

Why is trout habitat decreasing?

It's a bit of a challenge to untangle the knot of declining trout habitat in the American West because it's a multifaceted issue.

On one hand, there is the decline of native trout range as non-native species move in and outcompete those trout for resources and territory.

On the other hand, trout habitat could be decreasing due to warmer water, lower stream flows, and declining water quality from more frequent forest fires, as well as the legacy effects of overgrazing and logging — many of which are related to global warming.

MORE:Water conference 2019: How did the 416 Fire impact the Animas River?

Determining which of those issues deserves more attention in New Mexico depends on who you talk to.

Some academic studies have been focused on climate change — most notably a 2008 paper from the National Resources Defense Council entitled "Trout in Trouble: The Impacts of Global Warming on Trout in the Interior West" and a 2013 study led by Colorado State University researchers published in the peer-reviewed science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Guide Andy Kim, left, works with angler Adam Long, of Dallas, on Aug. 8 near the Texas Hole on the San Juan River.

The NRDC paper doesn't mince words when it comes to predicting a dire future for trout habitat in the region.

"Global warming is the single greatest threat to the survival of trout in America's interior West," it states. "If nothing is done to reduce human-produced greenhouse gas emissions — the primary culprit behind global warming — trout habitat throughout the Rocky Mountain region could be reduced by 50 percent by the end of the century."

The CSU-led study sounds a similarly ominous tone, claiming an identical decline in trout habitat over the next 70 years with some species being hit much harder than others. Native cutthroat populations, it estimates, could fall by 58 percent, while brook trout could decline by up to 77 percent. Rainbow trout populations could fall by 35 percent, and brown trout could be reduced by 48 percent, according to the study.

Declining trout habitat may hurt local economies, tourism

If those predictions come to pass, the impact on the trout fishing industry — a major component in Western tourism and thousands of local economies — likely would be devastating.

The NRDC paper cites 2002 figures that show that sport fishing had an $800 million-plus economic impact in Colorado while supporting nearly 11,000 jobs — figures that almost certainly have increased substantially since that time. It also states that angling generates nearly $300 million a year in Montana, a state with a population of a little more than 1 million people.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish says the tailwater section of the San Juan River below the Navajo Lake Dam — a world-class trout fishing destination — alone contributes millions of dollars to the state's economy each year.

MORE:Fishing improving in the San Juan River despite murky water

Dallas resident Phillip Glass reaches to unhook a small trout caught by Layton Glasson on Aug. 8 near the Texas Hole on the San Juan River.

Most people associated with the industry in New Mexico — state Game and Fish officials, Trout Unlimited representatives, fishing guides and even anglers themselves — have their concerns about the future of trout fishing here.

But few of those worries align, ranging from the aforementioned issues to such concerns as increased fishing pressure on some waterways and a perceived imbalance between the ways New Mexico and Colorado regulate and permit guide services on their waters.

Bryan Bakevich, the Rio Grande Basin native fish supervisor for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, sometimes finds himself in the middle of many of those concerns.

But he takes a generally optimistic view of the future of trout habitat in the state, pointing to the millions of dollars in habitat restoration work that has been done over the past several years and explaining that his agency is more involved in that kind of work that it ever has been.

"There's a lot we can do to help mitigate this process," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.