Massive N.M. Fire Threatens Endangered Fish

Ash and charred debris from the largest wildfire in New Mexico's history are threatening the survival of the Gila trout. Biologists are trying to save the fish by using electroshock to temporarily stun the trout and re-locate it to a hatchery. The trout is an endangered species that can be found only in four streams within the Gila Wilderness. Melissa Blocks talks to Jim Brooks, Project Leader of the New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, about his team's efforts to save the trout.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in Southern California.

The wildfire that has ravaged southwestern New Mexico is the largest in the state's recorded history, and it's endangering an already threatened species of trout. Biologists say the ash, sediment and charred debris will wash into streams with summer rains and that's a deadly recipe for the Gila trout found in the Gila National Forest.

So, biologists are trying to save the fish by stunning them with electroshock devices, then transporting them to a hatchery out of harm's way. Jim Brooks has been taking part in that rescue operation. He's with U.S. Fish and Wildlife based in Albuquerque. And, Mr. Brooks, explain how this works. You have electroshock devices. How do you get the fish out of the stream and ultimately up to a hatchery?

JIM BROOKS: Well, for us that we're on the field in, we use backpack electric fishers that put electricity into the water through a handheld electrode. They stuns the fish temporarily. You collect the fish with dip nets. They're put into buckets and then place in live cars for temporary holding until a helicopter comes in with a fish transport tank hung underneath. And then those fish are transported to the hatchery where they're maintained.

BLOCK: Wow. That sounds like a major operation. How many fish have you taken out so far?

BROOKS: Last week, on Friday - and we sampled Langstrof Creek and we took out 261 Gila trout and then the following day, on Saturday, in Whiskey Creek, we took out 81.

BLOCK: Well, what happens now? Once you've taken these fish out of the stream, taken them to the hatchery, when is it safe to get them back into the wild?

BROOKS: Boy, that's the big question right now. I mean, I've seen many estimates of how long it's going to take some of these drainages to recover. This is all in the Upper West Fork Gila River drain. It's where we were working this last week. And I saw a fire there in 2002 that was not nearly as big and didn't result in that much of an extensive burn in the system and it was just starting to recover and that's been over 10 years ago. And I would say that I have no idea. It's going to be decades.

BLOCK: How do these Gila trout do in the hatchery, taken out of the wild and brought inside?

BROOKS: Well, they're wild trout. Like any trout that comes in that's wild, you don't treat them the same way you would domesticated fish. It'd be like trying to treat a wild elk the same way you do your milk cow in your backyard. And so these fish require a lot of cover, no fluorescent lighting over them. Basically, have to sort out and grate out all the big fish from the little fish. They're very aggressive, very territorial. You can have cannibalism. And so you have to feed them live diets. You have to be much more considerate in how you get these fish to eat. And the last thing we want to do is decrease the status of their health to a manner that they're not going to be able to interact with each other.

And they're ultimately going to become domesticated or trained to the system. Their genetics will be OK, but it's like moving from the country into the city. And you have to learn how to live in the city.

BLOCK: Mr. Brooks, it sounds like you have a lot of respect for this fish.

BROOKS: Absolutely. I've spent the last 25 years of my career working on this fish. And it is the American Southwest, and I'm not sure how else to explain. It deals with some of the toughest situations that a trout could possibly want to. You can go from a tiny creek that's intermittent, that doesn't have flow throughout it, to one that's flooding pretty heavily. And everything in between, these fish have been able to withstand a lot of different issues, from fires to climate change to overfishing, and to freak accidents where you have big floods for whatever reason or you have debris slides, that sort of thing.

And they're - I don't know. You know, I grew up in that part of the country. And so, it's pretty special.

BLOCK: Well, Jim Brooks, thanks for talking to us today. Appreciate it.

BROOKS: You bet.

BLOCK: Jim Brooks is project leader with the New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We were talking about the operation to save the Gila trout from the effects of wildfire.

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