Trout lovers trek into Rio Grande Gorge for release

April 8, 2019

TAOS — As biologist Ryan Besser hiked down a lava-rock trail to the bottom of the Rio Grande Gorge last month, his backpack held more than just a water bottle and granola bars. The most valuable cargo was a sturdy plastic bag filled with tiny, bug-eyed trout soon to be released in the wild river below.

For more than a decade, Besser, a fisheries biologist for the Bureau of Land Management, has taken part in the “trout drop,” which has become an annual tradition at the Wild Rivers Recreation Area near Cerro.

Since the early 2000s, federal and state agencies have worked together to increase the native Rio Grande cutthroat population in the area. In the early days of the trout drop, staffers with each of the agencies were the ones hiking the fish to the river, sometimes making three to five trips in a day.

A lot has changed since then.

“This one-of-a-kind event has grown exponentially in recent years,” said Jane Trujillo, a cold-water fisheries technician with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and one of the coordinators of the event.

Friday’s event drew nearly 200 volunteers, a mix of locals and people from around the state and region. Almost 10,000 Rio Grande cutthroat trout were hiked hundreds of feet down to the edge of the river.

The Rio Grande cutthroat trout is the state fish of New Mexico for good reason: It’s a native species in the river’s headwaters in the San Juan Mountains in Southern Colorado and in waterways throughout Northern and Central New Mexico.

With its brassy sides, bronze back and a bright, orange slash along its jaw, the Rio Grande cutthroat is the southernmost subspecies of cutthroat trout in the U.S. Though it is not listed as an endangered species, its spread is far more limited than it once was. By one estimate, the fish occupies less than 10 percent of its previous range.

“The Upper Box has some really good habitat on the Rio Grande for the cutthroat to survive,” said Besser.

Besides a temperature range that is just right, the river also has “a lot of little pockets of habitat,” where the small fingerlings can dart under rocks and into grasses.

But getting the fish to their new home is no small feat.

The trout come from the state Game and Fish Department’s Seven Springs Hatchery, located near Jemez Springs.

Trujillo, of the Game and Fish Department, said it took about a month to round up all the equipment needed for the March 29 event.

Game and Fish employees started loading the trout into the trucks around 3 a.m., she said, and then made the drive — more than three hours — to Wild Rivers.

About 18 department staffers spread out to four trailheads at the recreation area. After a quick presentation at the visitors center, volunteers fanned out to the trails. Game and fish employees rallied kids and eager anglers to help fill sturdy plastic bags with a dozen or so fish and a hit of oxygen. They tied the bags with an industrial rubber band, and people started making their way down the trials.

At the riverbank, volunteers plopped the bags of fingerling trout into a calm part of the river for about 10 minutes, so the fish could adjust to the temperature. Then they opened the bag, let in a little river water and eventually let all the fish go into the Rio Grande.

Though most of the fish won’t survive long enough to grow to adult size, the event is a chance to get people directly involved in conservation. According to conservationists on hand that day, that’s a win.

“For educational purposes, there’s so many benefits for this. People have a sense of stewardship to bring these fish down. We can use it to teach about sustainability of native populations,” said Besser.

Among those hiking down Chiflo Trail were a mother and daughter from Moriarty, a fly-fishing guide from Creed, Colo., and Questa Village Manager Nick Maestas.

“We’re really excited all these people are in Questa,” said Maestas. With events like the trout drop, he said, “We’re really making the monument Questa’s own.”

The fish released at Wild River were mainly for recreational purposes. And reports from anglers who catch some Rio Grande cutthroat means that some of them are surviving into adulthood.

Meanwhile, more aggressive conservation efforts are happening upriver.

For example, in the Rio Costilla Watershed, a multiagency team has for years worked to restore the cutthroat population.

In some of those areas, the stream was cleared of all nonnative fish, and cutthroat from Seven Springs were introduced to create a pure genetic population of New Mexico’s state fish.

Even with such successful conservation projects, the cutthroat are still vulnerable to long-term climatic changes.

According to a 2015 report authored by scientists with Trout Unlimited and the U.S. Forest Service, “extended drought will be especially serious for southwestern trout like the Rio Grande cutthroat, where a majority of populations in recent years have experienced” rivers with drastically reduced flows of water.

This story first appeared in The Taos News, a sister publication of the Santa Fe New Mexican.