Rio Grande Cutthroat Status and Restoration

Ron Loehman, Conservation Chair

Working Group Meeting: In November I attended a meeting of the Rio Grande Cutthroat Working Group. They meet quarterly to bring together representatives of public agencies and private organizations and who, by their mission statement, are “committed to improving the security of Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (RGCT) in their historic range… to preserve the fish for present and future generations”.   As most of you know, the RGCT is the native trout in New Mexico in the Rio Grande, Pecos, and Canadian River watersheds and that it has been reduced to a tiny fraction of its original range by competition from non-natives, habitat loss, drought, fires, and a warming climate. Now, most RGCT are found only in the coldest, cleanest, high-elevation streams in New Mexico, primarily on the National Forests, but also on a few private landholdings (Ted Turner’s ranches) and some Indian reservations.

Endangered Species Listing?: The US Fish and Wildlife Service has a 2014 deadline for deciding whether or not to list the RGCT for protection under the US Endangered Species Act. This deadline is a strong motivator for conservation and restoration activities by the NM Department of Game & Fish and the US Forest Service, since listing would severely constrain agency activities in areas where RGCT are found. Some of our NM Trout conservation projects over the past few years have been in support of RGCT conservation, for example on Comanche Creek in the Valle Vidal and on the upper Rio Cebolla in the Jemez Mountains.

RGCT Status in the Jemez: Much of the recent Working Group meeting was devoted to status reports on streams affected by the Las Conchas fire. The RGCT population in Medio Dia Creek was lost. The Peralta Creek population was severely affected by the burn. The Rio del Oso, Rito del Oso, and Rito del Abiquiu were affected by the fire. The status of the population in Canones Creek had not been determined because threats of flash floods made conditions too hazardous for on-ground surveys.   On the other hand, the upper Rio Cebolla and the streams in San Pedro Parks are outside the area burned by the Las Conchas fire and, thus, their RGCT populations were unaffected.

Valles Caldera Status: The headwaters of the Rio San Antonio on the Valles Caldera were heavily burned and the late summer rains washed down huge amounts of ash into the stream. Dr. Bob Parmenter, Preserve Chief Scientist, reported an estimate of 95% of the brown trout killed in the upper reaches of the San Antonio. Other fish, such as chubs and dace, and aquatic insects seemed to have been unaffected by the ash runoff. A fish survey of the lower reach of the San Antonio in October revealed more brown trout than before the fire, suggesting that some browns survived by moving downstream.

RGCT in the Valles Caldera?: Dr. Parmenter made an interesting proposal to the
Working Group, specifically to remove the few remaining brown trout from the San Antonio and its headwater tributaries, which are all in the Valles Caldera Preserve, and restock it with Rio Grande Cutthroats. Some of us in the meeting thought it is an idea worth pursuing. Mike Sloan and Kirk Patten, who are the NM G&F representatives on the group, were unsupportive. They raised practical and legal issues, such construction of a barrier to prevent brown trout from migrating upstream from outside the Preserve, as well as problems with completely removing all the brown trout from the stream before RGCT stocking. They stated that without such guaranteed removal of the brown trout they couldn’t get credit for any RGCT population in the San Antonio in the decision on whether or not to list it under the Endangered Species Act. I pointed out that the Upper Cebolla contained both brown trout and RGCT and that NM G&F counted it as one of their core populations, but Sloan and Patten didn’t have an answer to that observation. I told Dr. Parmenter that NM Trout would support reintroducing Rio Grande Cutthroat trout to the Valles Caldera Preserve and volunteered us to help in any way we can. Stay tuned.

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