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FARMINGTON — As trout habitat declines in the Mountain West, New Mexico is hard at work restoring habitat and creating healthy fisheries.

Trout fishing is an extremely popular recreational pastime in New Mexico, drawing visitors from all over the country — and sometimes around the world — to its clear, cold, high-elevation streams. 

Bryan Bakevich is New Mexico Department of Game and Fish's native fish supervisor for the Rio Grande Basin. He said his agency's surveys reveal that the number of anglers on state waterways has been stable to slightly increasing over the last 10 years, and he said those numbers allow his department to continue serving the interests of fishing enthusiasts.

The agency is not funded through the state general fund, he said. Instead, its revenue comes from the sales of licenses and fishing-related excise taxes.

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"As such, the amount of work we can do ultimately comes down to how many anglers decided to fish here in NM," Bakevich wrote in an email to The Daily Times. "This is … the beauty of the North American model of wildlife management where the angler is the primary source of fisheries conservation funding."

Backevich argues it's important to measure the progress that already has been made in protecting fish habitat in the state.

"This is primarily due to the end of unregulated logging, grazing, and other uses that degraded fish habitats from the 1700s to about the mid 1900s," he wrote. "Again, there's plenty of work that needs to be done, but I think it's important to understand where we came from and the work that's already been done to get where we are now."

State invests millions in habitat restoration

Over the past five years, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has spent more than $5.5 million on habitat restoration projects all over the state.

Its largest project, which totaled more than $2.9 million, was designed to improve 6 miles of habitat on the San Juan River. Other projects of note included $800,000 of work on the Red River and $640,000 of work on the Rio Costilla.

Improving trout fishing habitat is relatively straightforward work, Bakevich said, describing it as increasing the depth of pools, tightening the width of stream channels and increasing the amount of overhanging vegetation, along with the creation of wetlands that filter out silt before it can enter a river.

All those things can contribute to increasing the depth and quality of the water, while keeping the summer water temperature at a level that allows trout to survive, if not thrive.

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The work is more important now than ever, he said, noting the challenges posed by increased drought, heat waves and wildfire activity.

He said the drought that plagued the entire state for much of 2018 had a major impact on many of the state's cold-water fisheries, and he said there is increasing evidence that years like that are becoming the new normal.

Bakevich said his agency is proud of that work, and is planning additional projects on the Rio Chama and lakes in the southwest corner of the state.

Toner Mitchell works for Trout Unlimited — a nonprofit focused on maintaining and restoring trout fisheries. He applauded the state's efforts.

Mitchell noted that his organization has been an active partner in performing much of that restoration work across the country, including its participation in the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout Conservation Team — an organization that includes Bakevich's department, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Mescalero Apache Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Taos Pueblo, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

But Mitchell noted how expensive that restoration work is and expressed a fear that some federal funding sources that states have been able to access in the past on a matching basis soon may disappear. The money that is being spent on habitat restoration in New Mexico is simply not adequate for the task at hand, he said.

"Game and Fish might have spent several million dollars over the last few years, but that's just scratching the surface," he said.

Trout Unlimited is doing its part to raise private funding focused largely on wetlands restoration, Mitchell said, believing that work provides the most bang for the buck.

"If you can improve cold water and cold water flows, you've done half the battle," he said.

When it comes to habitat restoration, not all trout are created equal

Habitat restoration doesn't apply equally to all trout. Much of the work is aimed at preventing the spread of non-native trout — namely browns, rainbows and Eastern brook trout — into waterways that remain home to New Mexico's natives, the Rio Grant cutthroat and the Gila trout, both of which have seen their range severely diminished over time.

The Rio Grande cutthroat, for instance, is down to just 12 percent of its native range. Meanwhile Gila trout have all but disappeared aside from a handful of populations in the Gila River and San Francisco River drainages in New Mexico and Arizona, reportedly becoming one of the rarest trout species in the country.

Some trout fishing enthusiasts regard their survival as a much more important issue than the overall decline of trout habitat in the West.

Trout Unlimited officials in New Mexico have made that concern a priority, cooperating with the state to help construct barriers that keep non-native fish from advancing upstream.

Brown trout, in particular, are said to have advantages in their spawning cycle that allow them to dominate Rio Grande cutthroats in the search for food, and they are generally more tolerant of warm water. Mitchell described them as "vicious competitors."

Trout Unlimited volunteer Arnold Atkins cited the efforts of state officials to establish so-called "meta-populations" of pure Rio Grande cutthroat in certain rivers and all their tributaries, perhaps giving that species its best chance at longterm survival by not having to deal with non-native species they are ill-equipped to face.

But concentrating those efforts on certain water systems means others are ignored, he said.

"That doesn't leave much time or money or manpower to work on so many smaller streams, which is very frustrating to those of us who enjoy fishing those," he said.

Could high-elevation streams provide haven?

For now, many of the state's surviving Rio Grande cutthroat populations have become concentrated in high-elevation streams that remain too cold for the non-native species. But global warming serves as an advancing threat to that isolation.

Mitchell and Bakevich both said there are streams in New Mexico that are still too cold to support any trout population at all, and the possibility exists that, as they warm up through climate change, some additional range for cutthroats could open.

But a 2008 National Resources Defense Council study examining climate change's potential impact on trout largely discounts the positive impact of that possibility, explaining the gain of new higher-elevation range will not be enough to offset the loss of lower-elevation terrain to non-natives. 

Fire provides clean slate in Jemez River

That's not to say destructive developments can't sometimes work to the advantage of those trying to preserve native trout.

Bakevich cited the Las Conchas Fire in Los Alamos in 2011 as an example.

The blaze left a deep burn scar on the land, resulting in a great deal of ash and silt washing into the nearby East Fork of the Jemez River, a waterway that had been taken over by non-native trout. That material killed the invaders, and Bakevich's agency was able to go in and perform restoration work and install barriers downstream on a waterway that suddenly had become fish free.

He explained the process takes five to 10 years to play out, but soon, he said, state workers will reintroduce native trout to the East Fork and reintroduce a population that had been believed lost to invasive species.

Mitchell said the same scenario developed in the wake of a fire at Bandelier National Monument that wiped out an invasive brook trout population, leaving the waterway open to the reintroduction of native cutthroats.

Non-native fish threaten native species

Such positive results from warming temperatures are rare, they both noted. Still, there seems to be a consensus that the primary threat to New Mexico's native trout is not rising temperatures — it's the advancement of non-native species.

That argument is hammered home in a new document, a 2019 North American Journal of Fisheries Management paper entitled "Predicting Persistence of Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout Populations in an Uncertain Future."

The report, authored by Matthew Ziegler of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, as well as officials from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey and a Colorado State faculty member, acknowledges the threats to Rio Grande cutthroat posed by global warming but cites non-native species advancement as the far more immediate threat.

"Although our results indicate that (Rio Grande cutthroat) are facing multiple stressors acting at different time horizons, it is clear that the most proximate threat is posed by invading nonnative trout," the report states.

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

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