The state Game Commission voted unanimously today to proceed with plans to poison part of a Rio Grande tributary in an effort to restore a native trout species.
Based on the vote, the state Game and Fish Department, in cooperation with Turner Enterprises' Ladder Ranch, will put in motion the process to treat Las Animas Creek near Truth or Consequences with rotenone, a fish poison or "piscicide." The initiative is designed to restore the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, New Mexico's state fish, to one of its native waterways.
The project will also attempt to restore native Rio Grande sucker and Rio Grande chub.
The piscicide will kill all fish and aquatic invertebrates in the creek, after which about 15,000 Rio Grande cutthroat fry from the state hatchery will be put in. Three hundred and fifty thousand of the trout hatched at that facility this year, said state Game and Fish Fisheries Biologist Kirk Patten. There are several more steps that have to happen before the rotenone is actually applied, and the catch and release only restriction on the creek will be lifted temporarily so that sportsmen can take some of the ill-fated fish out of the waterway themselves.
Some questions have been raised about how different the "pure" Rio Grande cutthroat are genetically from the hybrid fish in the stream right now. Patten told the commission that the current denizens of the creek include hybrid "cut-bow" who descended from the native fish and non-native rainbow trout that were stocked there in the past. Rainbow trout genes have been increasing in the trout found there over time, Patten said.
Most of the public forum participants were sportsmen in favor of the plan. Frank Weissbarth with the New Mexico Council of Trout Unlimited told the commission that TU strongly supports the plan, partly because of concern that the Rio Grande cutthroat could be listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act otherwise, leading to far-reaching restrictions for anglers and others.
"We're concerned we're going to end up on the ESA listing unless the efforts are kept up and intensified," Weissbarth said, referring to other efforts in the northern part of the state, on Turner Enterprises' Vermejo Ranch, that have restored some Rio Grande cutthroat trout habitat. Ladder Ranch Manager Steve Dobrott assured the commission that Ted Turner's interest in the project isn't motivated by desire to hook the native trout.
"A fish this big isn't going to excite Ted that much," Dobrott said, holding his hands about six inches apart.
Instead, Turner's interest is in conservation and habitat restoration, he said.
"It's a feel-good thing for Ted and for us," Dobrott said.
Dr. Ann McCampbell was the only speaker fully opposed to the project.
"I do believe piscicides cause more harm than good," McCampbell told the crowd, after removing a gas mask she was wearing over her mouth and nose. "It's the height of irony that this is [partly in] the Aldo Leopold Wilderness."
Leopold was a writer and journalist who championed conservation and the environment.
Weissbarth tells SFR he was pleased about the decision, noting that the Rio Grande cutthroat trout has been associated with New Mexico since the 16th century, when it was first seen by the Spanish in the Pecos River.
Sportsman and InterAngler LLC founder Garrett VeneKlasen was also happy with the outcome.
"The fish itself is iconic, from a diversity standpoint," VeneKlasen says. "It's sort of what New Mexico stands for."