Snowflakes fell over the ponderosa pines and sandstone canyon walls as volunteer hikers, along with staff from Bandelier National Monument and the state Department of Game and Fish, loaded tautly inflated bags of cutthroat trout into backpacks and started hiking trails toward Frijoles Canyon.
"You could feel a little bit of a slosh as you were walking, but it really wasn't that bad, and fortunately, we were going downhill—that made a big difference," says Tom Chymbor, an Eldorado resident and retiree who showed up with his wife, Kathleen Burch, to volunteer to haul fish.
They'd first visited Bandelier with a hiking group, then returned to hike with a trail ranger and were impressed by rarely seen petroglyphs and eagle traps. They were hooked, so when a ranger said the park could use more volunteers, they signed up.
Their first work trip was in February 2014, Chymbor recalls, shortly after Las Conchas fire damage in 2011 met heavy rains in September 2013—just some of the fires and floods that reshaped the national monument in recent years. The cubic feet per second of water in a creek that usually runs at 10 registered at 9,000. Trails were washed out or buried under logjams of 250-year-old pine trees. On their first day as volunteers, he says, they collected emptied sandbags scattered by the floodwaters.
"We didn't count them all, but we estimated we must have gathered 1,500 of these used sandbags," he says. "As we started out, they were just these white dots all the way down the canyon."
That led to working on trail re-routing, tree clearing and building a rock wall to shore up a section of trail. This fall, they attended a dinner for volunteers that included a talk by Scott McFarland, natural resource program manager at Bandelier, about various projects underway in the park, including banding birds, monitoring water temperatures, installing audio recorders to capture the sounds of the wilderness, planting cottonwood and ponderosa seedlings, and constructing beaver dams in hopes of soon housing relocated beavers. Wetlands left from beaver dams may have helped some trees on the canyon floor survive when Las Conchas roared through the surrounding forest. Beavers' historic presence also makes a case for reintroducing them.
The series of floods hasn't just obliterated trails; they've filled streams with silt and sediment that killed fish.
"We ended up with basically a fish-less stream," says McFarland. Native Rio Grande cutthroat trout are often out-competed by non-native species, so the emptied Frijoles offered a chance to reset. He's also been measuring stream temperatures and water levels to make sure the habitat is ready for trout to return.
Reintroducing cutthroat increases resiliency for the statewide population of a fish that predominantly lives in places poised to see a catastrophic wildfire. The effort also can add recreational opportunities for anglers, and it ripples up and down the food chain, affecting insect populations and local birds like osprey. Also, McFarland says, "They're a native species that belongs in this environment."
McFarland and Game and Fish staff captured wild cutthroat trout on Tuesday, Oct. 30, at a river near El Rito using a pulse of electricity to stun the fish, then scooped them up and loaded them into a truck with a tank in the bed. The next morning, after counting 306 cutthroat and measuring the fish—a few as long as 8 or 9 inches—wildlife staff poured a couple gallons of water into plastic bags and pumped air into the bags to give fish oxygen for the journey. Then volunteers slipped the bags into their backpacks and hiked about a mile and a half down trails to the Rio de los Frijoles. The snowfall tapered off as they hiked, but clouds and fog hovered like a lid on the canyon.
Once at the creek, Chymbor says, he opened his bag to let some stream water into it, then eased the fish out into the current. Some people paused to cup one of the finger-thick fish in their hands before releasing it into the water.
"It was almost a little unfortunate, because with the amount of water in the bag and then when you added the stream water, you really didn't see it happen. They were so fast," he says. Still, he adds, "To watch that first fish go into the creek, it's like, wow, it felt like such a success. And doing your own little bag, you didn't want to just dump them in and run away. You wanted to linger."
He's hoping to come along for the next project as well: When someone reports a nuisance beaver, that'll give the state a chance to relocate it to Bandelier. Chymbor has asked what that haul would be like—probably not a bag in a backpack—and, he says, "We were all discussing how much they might weigh."