Trout lovers trek down to Río Grande for native cutthroat

By Cody Hooks
Posted 4/4/19

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

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Trout lovers trek down to Río Grande for native cutthroat


As biologist Ryan Besser hiked down a lava-rock trail to the bottom of the Río Grande Gorge on Friday (March 29), 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 re-homed in the wild river below.

For more than a decade, Besser, a fisheries biologist for the local Bureau of Land Management office, 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 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 folks from around the state and region. Almost 10,000 Río Grande cutthroat trout were hiked hundreds of feet down to the edge of the river.

The Río Grande cutthroat trout holds the title as the state fish of New Mexico, and for good reason: it's a native species in headwaters in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and along the the stretch of the Río Grande that flows through Taos County.

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

"The Upper Box has some really good habitat on the Río 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 that it took about a month to round up all the equipment needed for Friday's 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 river bank, 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 of the water. Then they opened the bag, let in a little river water and eventually let all the fish go into the Río Grande.

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

"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.

Indeed, hiking down Chiflo trail Friday were a mother-daughter duo from Moriarty, a fly-fishing guide from Creed, Colorado, 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 on Friday are mainly for recreational purposes. And reports from anglers who catch some Río Grande cutthroat means that some of them are surviving into adulthood.

Meanwhile, more aggressive conservation efforts are happening in the headwaters of the Río Grande.

For example, in the Río Costilla watershed, a multi-agency team has for years worked to restore the Río Grande cutthroat population.

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

Yet 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 Forest Service, "extended drought will be especially serious for southwestern trout like the Río Grande cutthroat, where a majority of populations in recent years have experienced" rivers with drastically reduced flows of water.


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