ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After a few miles of sloshing around in metal containers on the backs of mules, the first batch of Gila trout has been safely returned to wilderness streams in southwestern New Mexico.
The pack train will deliver an additional 3,000 of the federally protected fish deeper into the wilderness on Monday.
The work marks the successful ending of a rescue mission that started more than four months ago, when the largest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history was bearing down on Gila National Forest. Among the concerns at the time was the potential flooding of the forest's streams — home to the trout — with ash and charred debris.
The trout were scooped up and ferried out of the wilderness via helicopter then trucked to a hatchery on the other end of the state for safekeeping.
Since the fire, wildlife managers have been monitoring conditions across the Gila to see when the trout could be brought back.
"In addition to being a very attractive fish, they have survived isolation, drought and now the largest wildfire in New Mexico history," said Christine Tincher, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque. Tincher said the agency was able to use emergency funding to pay for the rescue and return.
Native to New Mexico and Arizona, the Gila trout was one of the original species listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. At that time, its range had been reduced to only four streams within the forest. Through recovery efforts, federal officials decided in 2006 to change the trout to threatened status.
Forest officials said they hope the trout released this fall will be ready to spawn next year.
Meanwhile, along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico and West Texas, biologists are releasing hundreds of thousands of endangered Rio Grande silvery minnows. Around 100,000 have already been released at Big Bend National Park. Nearly 300,000 more will be released in New Mexico next week.
Most of the minnows are coming from a national hatchery in southern New Mexico, where employees spent almost three weeks inserting small pink and yellow tags under the scales of each minnow so they can be tracked upon release.
Recent surveys reflect the drought's toll on the minnow. Four of 20 monitoring sites along the Middle Rio Grande were dry in September, and minnows were found at only three of the remaining 16 sites, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. "Essentially it's a lack of water in the system," said Dexter hatchery director Manuel Ulibarri. "We're just making sure there are enough individuals there to actually spawn next spring and maintain a population in the river."