TU is keeping tabs on important bills before the Arizona Legislature

Trout Unlimited is known for its rock-rolling work where we are often found with our waders on making rivers and streams better for trout and salmon, and of course, anglers. But we also spend plenty of time in our finest attire in the halls of state and federal legislative buildings advocating for smart water policies, protecting public lands and funding allocations to continue our on-the-ground efforts.

With Arizona’s legislative session ramping up, here is a look at some of the bills we are watching and how we’ll play both offense and defense to advance our goals of conserving, protecting and restoring our coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.

HB2056 – This bill, introduced by Rep. Griffin, allows instream water rights holders to have more flexibility with their allocated water allowing for better habitat for aquatic species as well as downstream users. The concern for many water rights holders is the loss of that water right, but this bill would allow these holders to keep more water in the stream for beneficial use while maintaining their water rights.

HB2247 – Also, introduced by Rep. Griffin, this bill would offer tax incentives for companies willing to help with the massive task of removing slash/biomass from areas within the 4FRI footprint and surrounding forest area. We have coined this the “biomass bottleneck” because with thinning and creating healthier forests comes a massive amount (up to 50 tons per acre) of small timber, limbs, shrubs and smaller debris that also needs to be removed. Without this tax credit, there is little incentive for removal of this product; therefore, making forest thinning nearly impossible. Companion legislation has also been introduced in the Senate, SB1177 with Sen. Kerr as the primary sponsor.

HB2127 – The AZ Heritage Fund would give $10 million to park and trail maintenance. Introduced by Representatives Osborne: Blackman, Bowers, Chávez, Cook, Dunn, Hernandez A, Jermaine, Lieberman; and Nutt. This bill has a good chance of passing and would be a boon to anglers, hunters and recreationists across the state.

Of course, we’ll keep our readers updated on the happenings in Arizona’s legislature, and we’ll reach out if we need assistance in advocating for these and perhaps other bills. Keep an eye on TU.org and our Facebook page for the AZTU council for more.

With roadblocks comes opportunity in Arizona

With massive projects like the proposed forest and watershed restoration efforts in Arizona come massive roadblocks. But roadblocks won’t deter Arizona Trout Unlimited from accomplishing its critical goals of forest and, therefore, watershed restoration.

If you’ll recall in our first blog post in this series, AZTU has been at the table urging forest restoration initiatives through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) to enhance watershed health for humans as well as trout. In this next installment, we want to alert readers to some of the roadblocks that remain and what AZTU is doing to help solve them.

Across the West, the summer of 2020 saw great devastation from wildfires. While Arizona had several fires, the destruction doesn’t compare to that of West Coast states. However, the Bush Fire burned 195,000 acres in the Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix and threatened its water supply. While outside the 4FRI footprint, this fire caused great concern because it burned an area adjacent to a series of reservoirs comprising a major portion of the water supply for the Phoenix Metropolitan area and hosting several warmwater fisheries. Concern remains for long-term runoff impacts on those waters. Across the state fires burned more than 700,000 acres, more than 2018 and 2019 combined. The fires in Arizona highlighted the urgency needed to restore forests and watersheds to their healthiest versions.

So, in an effort to continue moving things forward with 4FRI’s goals, the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently signed a memorandum of understanding stating that they will continue collaborating on planning and implementation focused on shared stewardship in regard to land management, protection of municipalities and watersheds and restoration. Of particular interest to AZTU is the portion stating this collaboration will protect and preserve aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and provide sustainable habitats for species of interest supporting Arizona’s robust hunting, fishing, sight-seeing, birdwatching and recreation economies. AZTU representatives and other interests are working to help define how this collaboration will work through specific working group meetings.

While this MOU and its collaborative nature is a positive step forward, there is need to look at bottlenecks holding up these efforts. First, there is the cost to implement 4FRI projects. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) will gain some help mitigating costs from state agencies such as the AZ Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) and the Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM), but there is still a large funding gap. The USFS and a number of other collaborators, including TU, are also investigating conservation finance, which is an approach to leverage private and foundation-based finances to meet some of 4FRI’s goals.

Closely tied to the finance issue is the so called “biomass bottleneck.” With 50,000 acres on tap to be mitigated each year for 20 years, there comes a significant amount of biomass (limbs, shrubs, smaller debris — as much as 50 tons per acre) from forest thinning. What can be done with this biomass and who will pay for that? Because this biomass has little monetary value and can be costly to move and process, the forest thinning effort, the key component of the 4FRI effort, is highly compromised. The Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), which is the state utilities regulator, has looked into the possibility to use biomass for power generation and has mandated a pilot effort that has proven to be very effective. This has so far been the only approach shown to be reasonable to dispose of this material; it is scalable and would relatively inexpensively facilitate the critical forest and watershed protection efforts, but the ACC has so far refused to expand this effort. A lot of people, multiple organizations including AZTU, and other state and federal elected officials and the utilities are working on this frustrating refusal issue.

In addition, the USFS is running a lengthy request for proposal process with final bids expected to be selected sometime in the first quarter of 2021 to determine if any private companies can assist with this issue and to determine if 50,000 acres per year for 20 years is even realistic.

This pre-COVID meeting took place on a Rim Country EIS field trip. Participants listen to Alan Hayden of Natural Channel Design Co discuss stream restoration techniques on Canyon Creek in the Tonto National Forest. This Field Trip was organized by AZTU and AZGFD, representatives for the USFS and 4FRI Stakeholders group as part of the Rim Country EIS process.

The USFS is still conducting its Rim Country environmental impact statement (EIS), and there are many questions as to how to roll out its implementation once the NEPA effort is complete. Because AZTU is deeply involved in the 4FRI stakeholder group working on planning and implementation, this is of special interest. With 777 miles of perennial streams and over 1,000 miles of ephemeral streams effected, it is critical work for AZTU. With numerous meetings to discuss plans concerning water resources and forest vegetation treatments, this stakeholder working group will be essential to ensuring Arizona’s forest restoration initiatives are rolled out successfully.

In the meantime, AZTU and the Arizona Chapters are working on other separate but 4FRI associated projects on the East Verde River and the Black River Forest Restoration environmental assessment. In conjunction with the USFS and AZGFD, AZTU hopes that this some of this work can fit under 4FRI’s regulatory approval process, or at least be consistent with the 4FRI desired approach. The hope is that this collaboration will see additional stream restoration work on native Gila trout recovery streams Dude Creek and Chase Creek that are tributaries to the East Verde River in fall 2021. In addition, AZTU also wants to ensure the 90,000-plus acres in the Black River Forest Restoration Project, home to good habitat for Apache trout, are restored with water restoration in mind.

Within the 4FRI footprint, TU helped install these rock barbs to help reduce the impact from major floods and help secure bank structure.

Of course, more funding and project staffing is always needed, but to AZTU, it is imperative to continue working on these key, on-the-ground projects with whatever funding is available to ensure rivers and streams, and the fish, have the resiliency to stand up to climate change and catastrophic wildfires.

AZTU is working diligently to raise awareness for water issues at the forefront of management and implementation plans. By being a willing collaborator, AZTU continues to ensure water is an important piece of the 4FRI efforts for overall forest and watershed health in Arizona.

Stay tuned for more on Arizona’s 4FRI efforts on TU.org.

Click HERE for the full article by Kara Armano on tu.org.

Is fly fishing going to “implode” as a result of the pandemic?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” Charles Dickens, from A Tale of Two Cities.

We all saw what happened. Last March, we all wondered how the heck we might survive (literally, and in a business sense) the pandemic. Sadly, some did not. Brick-and-mortar-based shopping got hammered. Travel took it on the chin even worse. But (as AT predicted), in the absence of T-ball leagues, and malls, and movie theaters, and all that, people had fewer other recreational options to tap. And that sent a lot of folks straight to the river (or lake, or ocean), all over the nation. Some to fish, some to float, some to boat, some to swim and others to merely be there. How many? The Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation just estimated somewhere around 17 million people.

The “ A River Runs Through It” phenomenon that transformed fly-fishing in 1992 is now small potatoes in comparison to what happened in 2020.

And for all the collective hand-wringing the fly industry has done over the past 20 years… “How do we get younger?” “How do we get more diverse?” “How do we keep fly fishing en vogue in an increasingly urbanizing society?” … the answer/opportunity came out of nowhere. Granted, it took the form of a shitty plague of Biblical proportion, but there are more young families, from all walks of life, from all points of the nation, that literally got their feet wet last year than ever in our lifetimes.

And all many of them want now is to learn how to fish.

But will fly fishing benefit from the goose that laid the golden egg, or will the fly-fishing community just lay an egg itself?

Sure, some businesses sold rods, and reels, and flies, and tippet faster than they could make (or stock) them. Some guides booked more days on the water than ever before. Some media-particularly social media—saw their audiences balloon beyond expectations. And for some, yeah, the money poured in.

But all that all came at another price.

That squeaky, grinding, crunchy noise you hear in your brain when you aren’t listening to the cash register ring is the hole that’s being drilled in the bottom of the fly-fishing consumer bucket.

Many of the die-hard aficionado types, who have been devoted to fly fishing for years (e.g. “the base”… the highest-spending, most dedicated consumers who actually buy $900 fly rods and $700 waders) are absolutely mortified by the crowds, the pressure, and the overall degradation of the on-the-water experience we saw last season. Read the message boards. Look at the threads. We’re in a spot where some lovers of this sport are ready to throw their hands up and walk away, and the newbies are also having gag-reactions to their first impressions, because of the circus atmosphere. And that pressure is unlikely to dissipate—the RBFF study also indicated over 90% of the newbies on the water want to continue that connection. That’s wonderful on one hand… what opportunity! It’s very, very dangerous on the other.

It breaks my heart, as a former guide, and someone who has written about, worked with and maintains so many genuine personal connections with guides and outfitters throughout the country that guides and outfitters risk being the ones who are tarred and feathered.

Guides, outfitters, and shops have been, and in my mind will be, the gatekeepers, the shepherds, the stewards. And manufacturers who see this current situation as an opportunity to sell more direct, and boost the bottom line, without also lifting and working collaboratively with those gatekeeper shops, guides and outfitters right now are not just selling out the partners who made their brands happen in the first place… they are risking selling out the sport as a whole.

On the other hand, some outfitters are hosing the fly community by being short-sighted. For example, it’s maybe not the best idea to run a multi-boat armada to accommodate a bachelor party on a public stretch on one of the most popular floats in Colorado, on a weekend, in the middle of summer. I saw this happen as I rowed my 22-year-old aspiring-attorney niece, and 17-year-old fishing-obsessed nephew—exactly the types we need to engage for the long-term health of the sport—only to have their experience on one of the most sacred, pristine rivers in the world end up being a day of watching a bunch of drunk, foul-mouthed googans reefing on fish and peeing off the backs of dories.

And some wonder why the fingers get pointed at guides and outfitters, and why there are movements in places like the Madison, or the Colorado, or the Delaware to “control” this stuff.

I still believe fly fishing is more than a market; it’s a community, even a family. Which is to say, we’re all in this together. Always have been, and hopefully always will be.

So, let’s work together to think about solutions on how to manage the influx, the crowding concern, and keep things pointed in what might unquestionably be a huge upward path for fly fishing.

As a habit, I never raise a concern without also raising some possible solutions/things to consider. So let me offer a handful here, and if you think I’m full of beans, tell me. I’m a big boy, and I can take the criticism. I just want to find a path forward. Outfitters:

  1. Raise your prices for guide trips. Add a hundred bucks per trip, and share that with your guides. Pay guides better, and pay yourself better. The dabblers won’t notice the difference, and if they do, fine. Better to do 100 trips at $700 a day than 125 trips at $500 a day.
  2. Talk to each other. Even though you’re competitors… spread it out. Fine, your permit says you’re entitled to A.B.C… trust that that will come in the long haul. “I’m going to be here with X, you go there with X, so we’re not tripping all over each other” is a very enlightened approach.
  3. Limit the hours that guides are on the water. Sure, chase the hatches and so forth, but the average non-angler client doesn’t begin to understand that stuff. Yield a window to those who do. Give them a shot.
  4. Focus on “coaching” and “teaching” and make a new generation of do-it-yourself anglers. The people who just want boat rides and pulling on fish are not long-term prospects… in fact, they are obstacles to those who really are legitimate anglers, or might want to be.
  5. Catch fewer, better fish, as the benchmark for success. Instill that on your sports. We share the resource, and we need to share the fish. A 30-fish day might have been the gold standard on your river five years ago, but bobber fishing just to feel the tug, without any real thought, isn’t really the essence. Catch a few on nymphs, then endeavor to catch a few on dries, or streamers, whatever. Make anglers… not just photo-ops.
  6. Work together and make a plan, together, for when the DNR (or whatever it’s called in your state) comes calling. Believe me… they are going to come calling.
  7. Lastly, double down on conservation and public access. Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, American Rivers, CCA… whatever. These groups make the sport possible in the first place, and it is unconscionable to be in the business of selling fishing, these days, if you don’t also demonstrate a conscience.

This can literally be the greatest, most positively-transformative “moment” in the history of fly fishing. Or it can be the demise of the sport and your business. This should be a priority concern for the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, and all its members. It is the number-one concern of Angling Trade.

Let’s seize the moment. Let’s work together. Let’s figure this out.

Click HERE for the full article by Kirk Deeter on anglingtrade.com.

Stocking of Gila Trout in West Fork of Oak Creek

See how Arizona Game and Fish stocks Gila trout, one of the state’s native trout species, at the West Fork of Oak Creek. Lakes where Gila trout have been stocked in Prescott include Lynx Lake, Watson Lake and Goldwater Lake. They can also be found near Safford, at the Frye Mesa Reservoir.

This video was produced by the Marketing branch of the Arizona Game & Fish Department. Producer: Bryce Sutter

Scouts, anglers join forces to improve conditions for native trout at Christopher Creek

PAYSON — Intermittent drops of water trickle out of a suspended pipe bridging two banks of Christopher Creek. The water rings from the leak are the only disturbance to the sedimented surface. Beneath it, few native fish still survive.

Drier seasons, hotter temperatures, steady erosion and a lack of maintenance has led to warmer waters and an increase in soil in the waterbody. This had made portions of the creek unsustainable to some native wildlife.

Now, organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and Trout Unlimited are investing in the creek’s restoration. Their work will address affected areas by improving cold-water flow, supporting soil banks and reintroducing native fish. By cooling temperatures and keeping soil from eroding into the water, a fishery in Christopher Creek has a better chance of survival.

“To keep our wildlife flourishing, our reconstructed habitats to have features that allow for it to both survive with really small flows and withstand really large flows,” said Allen Haden, an aquatic ecologist for Natural Channel Design Engineering. “That’s the challenge of the Southwest.”

Arizona’s ecology itself is a unique challenge to the engineers and ecologists studying the science behind the restoration. If changes to Christopher Creek are to be successful in the long term, the waterway must be able to support the survival of native fish through dry summers and post-wildfire flooding.

Service for the scouts

Greg Harmon, director of support services for the scouts’ Grand Canyon Council, sees the restoration project as the perfect opportunity to introduce youth to conservation.

“Kids now live surrounded by concrete. We want them to reconnect to the outdoors by going outdoors and learning to love it. If you don’t love something, you won’t want to learn how to protect it,” Harmon said. “We want them to know part of being a good citizen is giving back to others and we want them to do that through the environment.”

The restoration focuses on parts of the creek near the Roosevelt Council Scout Ranch, about 20 miles northeast of Payson. A key element to the project is the involvement of the scouts in the restoration work.

“Arizona struggles in a lot of ways with water and climate change. There are a lot of things going on so we want to expose kids to those challenges,” Harmon said. “One of the best ways to do that is through service projects because they get to go out there and exert some manual labor. They sweat and at the end of it they get to say: ‘I did this.’”

Service for the scouts will most likely begin next year, after the initial assessment of Christopher Creek is completed this November.

Over the last few months a similar project has been taking place at Camp Geronimo, another scout camp around 40 miles northwest of the R-C Scout Ranch. Scouts have logged over 9,000 hours of work in the implementation of the master erosion plan at the camp.

“If we don’t expose kids to nature and tell them why it’s significant and how they can connect to it, then they won’t see any value in it,” Harmon said. “Then as future adults, they won’t vote to protect it and they don’t do what is necessary to make sure it’s there for their children.”

Angling and reintroduction

Earlier this month, the Arizona Council of Trout Unlimited received a $2,500 grant through the national organization’s Embrace A Stream program. This money is being put toward the Christopher Creek restoration at the ranch.

One of the key elements will be the reintroduction of native fish, such as roundtail chub, longfin dace and Gila trout.

Gila trout are one of only two native trout species in Arizona; the other is the Apache trout, the state fish. These species are native only to southeastern and central Arizona, as well as southwestern New Mexico.

“They’re a big part of our legacy and heritage here in Arizona. They’re one of the coolest parts of the diversity of fish species that we have in the Southwest,” said Zach Beard, the native trout and chub coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Reintroduction of Gila trout and all those native species is great because having more biological diversity is a really great thing for the environment.”

Habitat degradation, overharvesting, introduction of nonnative fish and both water loss and overuse, pushed native trout close to extinction, Beard said. In 2017, the department conducted a fish survey at Christopher Creek and found that longfin dace were the only native fish in the stream.

Through specific reintroductions and stricter regulations, native trout populations have slowly recovered.

There are currently seven creeks in Arizona — Chase, Coleman, Dude, Frye, Grapevine, Marijilda and Raspberry — that are considered recovery streams for Gila trout, meaning the harvesting of these fish is prohibited.

“Those fish populations are more focused on trying to get Gila trout to a point where they can be delisted from the Endangered Species Act,” Beard said. “But there are other places, recreational streams, to fish for native trout.”

Once Gila trout is reintroduced to Christopher Creek it will be added to the list of recreational water bodies where anglers can fish for the trout.

The list of current recreational water bodies includes the East Verde River, Frye Mesa Reservoir, Goldwater Lake, Lynx Lake, Oak Creek, Watson Lake and West Fork Oak Creek.

“What better thing for a young person to be able to come down to a nature center and one, fish for roundtail chub, two, be able to see dace dancing in the water, and three, be able to find Chiricahua leopard frogs and also fish for Gila trout in adjoining steams,” said Alan Davis, the Christopher Creek project chair and the president of the Zane Grey Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Alongside improving cold-water flow and reintroducing native fish, Davis and Harmon also plan to repair the youth fishing pond at the R-C Scout Ranch.

“Scouts, especially cub scouts, are usually new to fishing and they don’t have a lot of skill yet, so by stocking a small pond we can increase their chances of catching,” Harmon said. “To watch their faces light up the first time they get something on the line or the first time they touch the sliminess of a fish is a really neat organic experience. The pond allows us to do that.”

Following the restoration of both the pond and creek, Harmon hopes to continue the relationship between the scouts and Trout Unlimited. Scouts usually partner with other groups to teach skill sets for specific merit badges, like fishing.

“As an organization, we can’t be the experts in everything. We need to look to outside groups who are experts and we need to bring in that expertise. By partnering with these groups, we are getting a whole new source of adults to expose our youth to,” Harmon said.

“One of the great things about doing this, especially with Trout Unlimited, is that we’re connecting youth with fantastic role models,” Harmon said. “Alan (Davis) is a great example. He is a professional guy and the lovable grandfather every kid wants in their lives.”

WHAT CAN BE DONE? As climate change fuels heat, fires, drought, Republic panel examines threats, solutions

Restoring waterways

Data collection and surveying is the first step to the Christopher Creek restoration. This work won’t be done by scouts, but by Natural Channel Design Engineering.

“We will be looking at the habitat there and how we can make it better. We haven’t done the assessment yet, but one of the things we do look for is what the potential for the site is going to be,” Haden said.

There is a high demand for fishing and camping in the Christopher Creek area, according to Haden. The amount of human activity is being compounded by the effects of climate change, which Haden says inevitably affects the environment.

“All of those things have an impact. They are all resources we are trying to take out,” Haden said. “We are in this drought period, so we have less water and as things warm up, so does the water. This leads to more erosion, putting more sediment into the stream. All of these different impacts coming together.”

Haden hopes to have the initial assessment of the creek completed by November. The process is complicated and made more difficult because of the unique environmental challenges of Arizona’s climate.

The restorations to Christopher Creek must allow for the wildlife to survive both the lack of water during the summers and the intense flooding that commonly follows wildfire season.

“This is really unique to the Southwest and it’s challenging to restore a waterbody that needs to withstand both really small flows and really large flows,” Haden said.

Over the years Haden has worked for Natural Channel Design, he has seen the type of work the firm does adapt to climate change.

“It used to be that we were mostly asked to look at stream stability (and) while that’s still a portion of what we do, in the last couple years a lot of projects have been focusing on how we make a pond or a creek work with less water and also how do we improve the temperature of a stream if it’s getting warmer,” Haden said.

“All those issues have come to the forefront,” he said, “and I don’t think the demand for the kind of work we are now doing is going to drop off.”

Click HERE for the full article by Anton L. Delgado at The Arizona Republic/AZCentral.

Army Corps says no to massive gold mine proposed near Bristol Bay in Alaska

The Trump administration denied a key permit on Wednesday for a massive gold and copper mine in Alaska striking a devastating blow to a project opposed by an unusual coalition that includes the president’s son as well as conservationists and Alaska Natives.

In a statement, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska Commander Col. Damon Delarosa said the agency would block Pebble Mine because it determined that the plan the Pebble Limited Partnership submitted to deal with the project’s waste “does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines and concluded that the proposed project is contrary to the public interest.”

While the Trump administration has pressed ahead to weaken environmental protections and expand energy development before the president’s term ends in January, the upcoming mine decision represents a major win for environmentalists, fishing enthusiasts and tribal rights.

Trump officials had allowed the Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, to apply for a permit even though the Obama administration had concluded in 2014 the firm could not seek federal approval because it could have “significant” and potentially “catastrophic” impacts on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery in nearby Bristol Bay. As recently as July, the Corps concluded that the mine would have “no measurable effect” on area fish populations.

But a slew of Alaskan and federal agencies warned that the project would inflict permanent damage on the region, destroying more than 2,800 acres of wetlands, 130 miles of streams and more than 130 acres of open water within Alaska’s Koktuli River Watershed. The proposed site lies at the river’s headwaters.

And an unlikely coalition of opponents formed when Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Vice President Pence’s former chief of staff, Nick Ayers – who all have enjoyed fishing or hunting around Bristol Bay – joined with traditional environmental groups and the region’s tribes in opposition to the project.

Opponents received a major boost in September when the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released recordings of secretly-taped Zoom calls in which the project’s top executives boasted of their influence inside the White House and to Alaska lawmakers to win a federal permit. Alaska’s two GOP senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, issued statements saying they opposed the plan and within days Pebble’s CEO, Tom Collier, resigned.

Pebble issued a plan to the Corps this fall outlining how it would compensate for any damage inflicted by the project, which would span more than 13 miles and require the construction of a 270-megawatt power plant, natural gas pipeline, 82-mile double-lane road, elaborate storage facilities and the dredging of a port at Iliamna Bay.

While the company applied for just a 20 -year permit, Northern Dynasty Minerals CEO Ronald Thiessen said in secretly-recorded conversations that he expected the operation could extract valuable minerals for decades longer than that.

Federal officials concluded that the plan the company outlined for curbing the operation’s environmental impact was not sufficient, the two officials briefed on the decision said.

President-elect Joe Biden has already said he would not allow the mine to be built.

“It is no place for a mine,” Biden said in a statement in August. “The Obama-Biden Administration reached that conclusion when we ran a rigorous, science-based process in 2014, and it is still true today.”

Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood, whose anglers’ group had campaigned against the project, said that a decision to deny it a permit would be “a victory for common sense. Bristol Bay is the wrong place for industrial-scale mining, and we look forward to working with the state and other partners to protect Bristol Bay and its world-class fisheries permanently.”

Click HERE for the full article by Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

The plight of the Gila trout

Deep in the New Mexico desert, amongst Anasazi ruins and rough, wild country lurks the rarest of the rare.

Huddled as close to the fallen tree as we could get, Kirk and I looked at each other, our eyes wide with surprise and a touch of fear. The bullet had missed us by a wide margin, but the fact that we could hear it as it zinged overhead after the ricochet was unnerving.

“Wait for him to reload,” Kirk said. “Then we’ll get over that little rise and out of range.”

A few more shots rang through the trees along the creek bottom, and we could hear the lead crashing through the cottonwoods just a few dozen yards away. With each shot, we sank lower to the ground, making ourselves as small as we possibly could.

Finally, the shots ceased, and we popped up from the shelter and sprinted about forty yards over a small rise and out of the spray of handgun shots coming from the unknowing shooter. We hollered and yelled as we ran, but we suspected the target shooter was wearing earplugs as he or she clipped the trees from a nearby stretch of private land along the remote little creek, deep in the heart of southern New Mexico’s Gila country.

We’d spent a couple of hours driving a deeply rutted gravel road into the backcountry during the July monsoon season, and then hiked a few miles up a tiny creek that held one of the last stronghold populations of native Gila trout — one of only two trout subspecies native to the far southwest. The other native — the Apache trout — swims a bit farther to the west in Arizona. Both are rare, but efforts to recover them at that time were moving along nicely. We didn’t know that, years later, this little creek would fall victim to a hotter-than-hell wildfire, and the efforts to restore Gilas to this watershed would have to start all over from scratch.

And it’s not the first time a restored Gila population had to be brought back from the brink. Climate-induced wildfires are more and more common along the Mogollan Rim, and restored Gila trout streams have been in the crosshairs of wildfires a number of times. Thankfully, hearty Trout Unlimited volunteers have helped state fish and game managers salvage as many of the priceless fish as possible, rearing them in hatcheries until their wild habitat bounces back from its touch with inferno. Efforts to restore Gila and Apache trout continue today, even the face of ever-intensifying fires and a warming climate that’s noticeably different than it was even just a couple of decades ago.

But ignorance, at the time of our visit, was bliss. The bottom country around this remote stream north and east of Silver City was lush and green, not what you’d expect in the desert Southwest. Wildflowers soaked up the sunlight after a week of solid rain, and the grass along the trail draped over the bare dirt, disguising our path as we pushed deeper into the wilderness in search of these special trout.

Seven of us pierced the Gila wildlands that day, and, despite the best efforts of a clueless pot-shotter, all seven of us made it out without holes in our hides. We never figured out who was shooting or what they were shooting at.

But we did catch Gilas. Lots of them.

On the whole, they’re a pretty unremarkable fish, at least to look at. They look a little like their cousins to the north, the Rio Grande cutthroats, but without the heavy spots and, of course, without the tell-tale gill slash. They also resemble another Gila cousin — the rainbow, but without the red stripe. But, for small water, they were strong, thick-bodied, bronze-hued trout that put a good bend in a light, glass rod. And chasing them where they belonged, in this remote and wild country about a hundred miles from the Mexican border added to the adventure of checking another fish off the life list.

Kirk, at the time a guide, editor and freelance fly fishing writer, remarked more than once about the countryside and the sheer bounty of the mountains that sprang from the arid desert and pushed their way into the clouds. The summer monsoons — at times so torrential that every low spot on the map brimmed with standing water after a storm — greened up the landscape and pushed the Gila’s fauna into full view. We chased wild turkeys out of the piñons, spooked fat and happy mule deer and watched golden eagles ride the steamy thermals overhead.

After days spent hiking deep into the backcountry along the West Fork of the Gila River in search of brown trout, and touring Anasazi cliff dwellings abandoned for some unknown reason a thousand years ago, we rested our bones at the funky Gila Hot Springs Lodge, where good whiskey and warm water lulled us to sleep.

But the day I held that first Gila trout in my hands — a victim of a high-floating Adams — will always be special to me. Native trout, because they’ve been pushed into the recesses of their former ranges, are special creatures in a world where better is often measured by bigger. That’s certainly true in much of the Gila, where smallmouth bass and opportunistic browns now dominate the main stem of the Gila River. The native fish, pushed nearly into memory, now thrive only in tiny waters where the only people interested in seeing them rise to a fly are those of us willing to navigate treacherous mountain roads and then hike deep into the wild.

But what most folks don’t realize is that the trophy fish in today’s chopped up version of our country’s once-pristine heart aren’t the interlopers that’ll hit a popper in froggy water or chase a streamer in a deep hole under the highway bridge. The real trophies are the fish you can only get to with effort and tire rubber and locked-in hubs. And even then you have to park and walk, sometimes for miles, because that’s what it takes to experience the land as it was a century ago, or longer. And that’s the kind of land that nurtures the rarest of the rare.

Long live the Gila trout, and God bless the angler willing to chase them. As long as we walk the creekside trails and marvel at a creature so rare that it nearly winked out of existence, we know someone cares enough to check in on them now and then.

And as long as we tell our children the tales only these adventures spawn, we can rest knowing these fish have a future.

Click HERE for the full article by Chris Hunt in Hatch magazine.

Bounty on brown trout to protect native fish

LEES FERRY — The reflection of the red rocks made it tough to tell where the water ended and the cliffs began as Barron Tsinigine cast his line into the river. It was daybreak and he had been fishing for rainbow trout, until he found out he could earn $25 for landing a brown trout.

That’s when his plan changed.

“I’m in the same boat as everyone else right now. I’m unemployed and it’d be nice to make a little bit of cash, as well as get a meal,” Tsinigine said. “I’ll be out here fishing either way, at least now I can get paid for it.”

Tsinigine was one of the first anglers to participate in Arizona’s incentivized harvest of brown trout. Wildlife agencies are funding the pilot program to cull the brown trout population in the Colorado River, in the hopes of keeping the predacious trout from moving downstream and endangering native fish, like the humpback chub.

Anglers can catch a $25 check for every brown trout harvested, as long as it is at least six inches in length. To receive the reward, the brown trout must have been caught legally in the Colorado River, in the roughly 15-mile stretch between the Glen Canyon Dam and the Paria River inflow.

There is a newly established station at the Lees Ferry boat ramp where anglers can clean the trout and fill out data cards. They must also deposit the fish head and entrails at a collection station outside the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center.

“The only extra step for me is filling out a card and I want to do that because how else are they going to know where to send my check,” Tisingine said, with a grin. “I drive by the center no matter what. This is as simple as it can be. My wife will be thrilled.”

By incentivizing anglers like Tsinigine, the National Park Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department are hoping to avoid the use of more aggressive management tactics — like disrupting spawn beds or electro-fishing — to diminish the population of brown trout.

“It is unfortunate that such a coveted sports fish, like brown trout, lives in an area that is incompatible with our native fish management plan,” said Scott Rogers, an aquatic wildlife program manager for the Game and Fish Department. “But we’re not trying to remove every brown trout, just enough to mitigate the risk of them moving downstream.”

Program to thin fish population

This is one of the first such harvests in Arizona. It will run for the next three to four years, at which time wildlife agencies will reassess the trout population.

The brown trout, known for its olivebrown scales and its ability to evade capture, is a fish-eating predator that was introduced to the state in the 1930s.

“As brown trout become adults, they feed almost exclusively on other fish and they have a voracious appetite,” said Ken Hyde, chief of science and resource management for the park service at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. “Our real worry is that they move downstream and start eating native fish that are considered endangered or threatened.”

Generally, fish only move downstream when they run out of space or food. According to Hyde, monitoring data from the Game and Fish Department has shown a dramatic increase of brown trout over the last six years.

“As a fish-eating fish, having them in the same system as endangered or threatened native fish can be problematic if we don’t manage it closely, which is why we’re trying this incentivized program,” Rogers said. “This is an experiment, but we’re hopeful that it will be successful.”

If at the end of the pilot program the harvest is considered unsuccessful, the two agencies will turn to more aggressive mechanical removal tactics.

“We’re asking the public to pitch in because we need their help to avoid taking more drastic steps,” said Jeff Arnold, a fish biologist for the park service at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. “Mechanical removal is more expensive and much less popular among native tribes and angler groups because they think it will have a negative impact on the rest of the fishery.”

Mechanical removals include the disruption of spawning beds and electro- fishing.

“An incentivized harvest is the least intrusive type of management, which is why we are starting with that,” Rogers said. “By communicating with anglers, we’re hoping to convince them to partake in this program so that we can avoid any other invasive and aggressive means of mitigating the brown trout problem.”

The first time Jim Strogen went fishing was when he was 3 years old, or perhaps he was 2. He doesn’t remember. But he says he probably learned to fish faster than he learned to walk.

The lifelong angler is a recreational fishing representative for the technical working group of the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program. Strogen has been acting as a bridge between agencies and anglers throughout the development and launch of the trout harvest.

“The hardest part of starting a new program is getting the locals to buy in,” Strogen said. “It’s hard for some anglers to understand the importance of native fish down river because, from an angling perspective, humpback chub isn’t something we care as much about as brown trout.”

According to Strogen, the idea of catching and killing fish for money is also alien to many anglers, especially fly fishermen, who primarily practice catch and release.

“It’s not inherently obvious to a lot of anglers why catching a brown trout and killing it is a good thing because many have been taught it’s better for the environment to release them,” Strogen said. “But in this case, keeping and killing the trout is what’s best because if this type of management fails, then those agencies are going to have to try something more aggressive.”

Throughout the development of this pilot program, Strogen, Hyde and others involved in its development have been conducting informational meetings with popular fishing organizations, like Trout Unlimited, to explain directly to anglers how an incentivized harvest will help.

“Anglers are key to helping us manage brown trout,” Hyde said. “It’d be tough to get trout numbers back down without them.”

Incentivized harvests elsewhere

While this is one of Arizona’s first paid harvests, other states, such as Washington, have been funding similar programs for years.

According to Hyde, the brown trout program was generally modeled after the Northern Pike Reward Program run by the Colville Confederated Tribes’ Department of Fish and Wildlife.

For the past four years, anglers in Washington have been rewarded with $10 for every northern pike harvested in the Columbia River between Wells Dam and the Canadian border. Like the brown trout, the northern pike is an invasive species that feasts on other fish.

“For us, any northern pike is a bad northern pike. We want them all gone. They can consume so much fish that they can essentially wipe out all our other fisheries,” said Holly McLellan, the principal biologist for the tribes. “We’re very concerned about the expansion of northern pike into waters where they can consume salmon and other native fish.”

Since the start of the reward program in 2017, more than 3,100 northern pike have been caught by anglers, a third of those pike this year. The pike program operates on a budget of approximately $30,000 a year and has funding through 2025.

One of the key differences between these two incentivized harvests is the six-inch size minimum in Arizona. In Washington, a harvested northern pike of any size is compensated with $10. Last year, the average size of pike turned in for a reward was 16.5 inches.

“We’re really trying to concentrate on adults because they’re the biggest, the most likely to eat the most amount of fish,” Hyde said. “If the adults also move down river, they are more likely to spawn and continue expanding the brown trout population.”

Since the launch of the pike program, McLellan says one of the challenges has been maintaining anglers’ interest. While the first year of the program brought in over 1,000 northern pike, the next two years saw a steady decline to just under 400 pike in 2019.

That has now bounced back to 1,060 pike turned in by mid-November of this year. One of the reasons for the renewed interest is the improvements the department has made to communication, according to McLellan.

Consistent reminders on social media as well as the promotion of the program in nearby cities and towns has kept the harvest on the minds of avid anglers. McLellan believes this is an important aspect of any successful program because it corrects misinformation and reminds anglers that they can both help the environment and earn money.

“We want anglers to feel like they are part of the solution to this problem. Together, we can accomplish our objective in removing them,” McLellan said. “The rewards program is the angler’s way of helping solve the problem.”

Anton L. Delgado is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/ AZCentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @antonldelgado and tell him about stories at anton.delgado@arizonarepublic.com.

Environmental coverage on az central.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“We’re asking the public to pitch in because we need their help to avoid taking more drastic steps.”

Jeff Arnold Fish biologist, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Click HERE for the full article by Anton L. Delgado in The Arizona Republic.

Hands on Conservation

It is said that hands-on experience is the perfect teaching companion to classroom discussion and reading. The Trout In the Classroom program is a great example of this.

Started in 2006, the program inspires aquatic and water conservation knowledge in schoolchildren across Arizona.

Partners in the Arizona program include the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Council and Chapters of Arizona Trout Unlimited, and many hunting and fishing clubs across the state. Partial funding is provided by grants from the sales of Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation’s Conserving Wildlife specialty license plates.

One of the first programs of its kind in Arizona, Trout In the Classroom provides knowledge to young people (grades four through 12) as they raise trout from eggs to fingerling-size fish in their classrooms. Teachers and students are trained to feed the fish and monitor tank water quality.

“We equip teachers with the information they need to inspire students to learn and research any questions they have about fish biology,” says Trout Unlimited Arizona Council Chair Steve Reiter. “We know there are less young people getting outdoors and so we bring the experience to them.”

“In the program, students use STREAM [science, technology, recreation, engineering, art and math] approaches, learn about habitats and water resources and gain a valuable conservation perspective,” says Jim Walker, chair of the Arizona Trout In the Classroom program.

In 2014, AZGFD’s Aquatic Branch Chief Chris Cantrell and Statewide Hatchery Program Manager Geoffrey Rabinovich met with Walker and the Trout Unlimited team to discuss expanding the program from three classrooms into additional schools. The next year, Rabinovich was approached by Cantrell to be the new AZGFD liaison for the program.

“I wanted to help provide the tools to facilitate student learning of trout culture, fish biology, conservation and sportfishing,” Rabinovich says.

Since the 2014 meeting, the team has increased participation to 37 class-rooms as of last year. The long-term goal is to involve 100 schools statewide.

Department hatchery program staff Bryce Sisson, Trevor Nelson, David Fox, Kyle Tulisiak, Wayne Jones and Cindy Dunn are also instrumental in helping coordinate the program.

The Gila Trout Chapter in Payson has been involved with Trout In the Classroom for 10 years. “We are always anxious to educate children about the ecosystem of Arizona streams and lakes,” says Dorothy Howell, coordinator of the program and one of the chapter leaders. Howell and her volunteers are the primary contacts with teachers, helping them with equipment and advice about how to maintain healthy trout.

“The students are more involved in their learning because they are active with it, making it a more meaningful experience for both teacher and students,” says Kim Hansen, a sixth-grade teacher at Ruth Fisher Middle School in Tonopah.
Each year, the program begins with a teacher workshop, an educational opportunity that still continues today. This year’s workshop will be held online and in one-on-one pairings to meet CDC Covid-19 standards.

With the help of volunteers, Trout Unlimited chapters deliver and assemble 55-gallon fish tanks, a chiller to maintain water temperature and all the supplies and chemicals needed to help the eggs hatch and grow into fingerling-sized trout in each classroom. With an extensive statewide volunteer delivery process to the schools, AZGFD provides the trout eggs and fish food for the program.

“Trout propagated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department are a resource provided for all licensed anglers,” Cantrell says. “The Trout In the Classroom partnership with Trout Unlimited and participating Arizona schools provides the department an additional opportunity to broaden our reach into the diversity of Arizona.”

When each program ends in May, teachers report their findings to Trout Unlimited. To develop and practice their public-speaking skills, students present program reports to other classes, school officials, local service clubs and nonprofit organizations.

The fish are donated to conservation centers to nourish captive wildlife recovering from illness or injury. In the future, with disease precautions in place, it may be feasible to stock the fingerlings in rivers and streams.

Trout In the Classroom partners also hope the program encourages young people to venture outdoors to further explore nature with their friends and family and consider a career involving conservation.

To learn more about Trout In the Classroom, visit aztic.org.

Click HERE for the full for the full article by Anna Johnson in Arizona Wildlife Views.

Arizona Council of Trout Unlimited receives $2,500 grant

The Arizona Council of Trout Unlimited received a grant of $2,500 through the Trout Unlimited national Embrace A Stream grant program.

Volunteers from the council and chapter will use the funds to restore portions of Christopher Creek near the R-C Scout Ranch, about 20 miles east of Payson.

The project includes improving coldwater stream flows by habitat enhancements and restoration of native Gila trout. AZTU and its chapters will build rock and log barbs, improve a leaking spring-box diversion allowing cold water flows back into Christopher Creek. Additional improvements include: increased public access to Christopher Creek; reestablishing a youth fishing pond by draining, dredging, removing cattails, adding spawning beds, and refilling the pond by adding native roundtail chub and longfin dace.

“We are thrilled to be able to do more great work restoring and improving Christopher Creek and the R-C Scout Ranch pond thanks to this Embrace A Stream grant,” said Steve Reiter, Arizona Council chair. “With this grant, we will engage more than 100 volunteers from our local community to work on a creek we all know and love as residents and anglers.”

Embrace A Stream is a matching grant program administered by Trout Unlimited that awards funds to local chapters and councils for coldwater fisheries conservation. Since its inception in 1975, the grant program has funded more than 1,100 individual projects for $4.75 million in direct cash grants. Local chapters and councils contributed an additional $14 million in cash and in-kind services to EAS funded projects, for a total investment of more than $19 million.

This year, 17 chapters and councils were awarded grants for projects restoring stream habitat, improving fish passage, and protecting water quality in 18 states. The grant program is funded almost entirely by individual donations from Trout Unlimited members and conservation-minded individuals.

“We are thrilled to support the Arizona Council in its efforts to improve such an important local trout stream,” said Russ Meyer, chair of the Embrace A Stream grants committee, a group of Trout Unlimited volunteer leaders from across the country. “This year’s grant applications were extremely competitive, but the proposal for Christopher Creek stood out in our committee.

Click HERE for the full story in the Payson Roundup.