apache trout swimming in river underwater
Apache trout is a species of freshwater fish in the salmon family; (photo/Shutterstock)

Apache Trout Comeback Means Fish May Be Taken Off Endangered Species List

A coalition of federal and state officials worked with tribal leaders to save the Apache trout. Though, the fish will likely remain reliant on conservation efforts to survive.

After decades as a federally recognized endangered species, Arizona’s state fish now has a “brighter and more sustainable future.” That’s from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release, which has recommended delisting the Apache trout from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The fish was one of the first species to gain federal protection when the act was passed in 1973.

Since then, the fish has received a half-century of conservation efforts from the White Mountain Apache Tribe, as well as help from state, federal, and non-profit organizations. After a 5-year review, federal officials say they’ve met their long-term goal: 30 genetically pure populations of Apache trout.

That means it’s time to remove it from the ESA, they said. The proposal comes with a 60-day public comment period that will likely begin later this year.

“We’ve been working on this for a lot of years, and the tribe even longer than we have,” said Steve Reiter, former council chairman for nonprofit Arizona Trout Unlimited. “It couldn’t have been done by just U.S. Fish and Wildlife, or just the tribe. But it all started with the tribe, who recognized that these fish were special.”

However, taking the fish off the endangered species list doesn’t mean conservation efforts end. In fact, the Apache trout should be considered a “conservation-reliant species,” said Zach Beard, the Native Trout and Chub Coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

“They’re probably never going to be able to sustain themselves without help,” Beard said.

apache trout comeback — workers in fish hatchery
Volunteers work at the Alchesay-Williams Creek National Fish Hatchery Complex on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in 2016; (photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife)

A Team Effort to Restore Fish Habitat

The Apache trout comeback mirrors a very similar success story in Colorado. Officials long believed that the state fish of Colorado, the greenback cutthroat trout, had gone extinct.

When wildlife officials discovered a small population in 2012, they spent 10 years nurturing it. Those efforts paid off, and the state’s wildlife agency announced a major breakthrough last week.

Like the greenback, the Apache trout required a huge effort to restore. Conservation actions included non-native trout removal, fish barrier construction, and Apache trout reintroductions to Arizona streams.

It all started with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, which played a critical role in saving the trout. The tribe closed Apache trout fishing on tribal lands back in 1955 — taking steps to preserve the fish nearly 20 years before the Endangered Species Act. (Tribal representatives did not return calls by press time.)

Eventually, federal and state wildlife officials joined the tribe’s efforts. The coalition spent decades removing non-native trout species from Arizona rivers to prevent interbreeding with rainbow and cutthroat trout. As well, they removed the non-native brook and brown trout species, which feed on Apache trout.

Wildlife officials also built barriers to prevent the non-native fish species from coming back. Recently, conversation efforts got a $2 million boost from the National Fish Passage Program. With that money — and many non-native trout already gone — wildlife officials can now remove some of those barriers.

That will open 52 stream miles of trout habitat for new populations, U.S. Fish and Wildlife said.

apache trout comeback. person holdng trough in hand.
The Apache trout was one of many rare aquatic species impacted by the Wallow fire in 2011; (photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife)

Even Without ESA, Conservation Will Continue

Removing the Apache trout from the Endangered Species Act won’t stop local groups from protecting them.

Last year, all the groups involved — the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Arizona Game and Fish Department, USDA Forest Service, and Trout Unlimited — agreed to the Apache Trout Cooperative Management Plan.

That plan outlines goals to reach recovery and delisting of the Apache trout, and maintaining its population while providing sportfishing opportunities.

“As long as we continue to focus conservation efforts on them, they should continue to do well,” said Beard of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “They’re never going to be in a place where we can just forget about them. There’s a lot of other species like that.”

There are both benefits and downsides to taking the Apache trout off the ESA, Beard said. It might result in less federal funding for conservation. However, it also means less “red tape” that often slows everything down, he added.

apache trout comeback, wallow fire afteramth showing stream in blackend forest
The 2011 Wallow fire burned through Arizona’s Soldier Springs Creek, which harbored a unique population of federally threatened Apache trout; (photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife)

Climate Change a Major Concern to Apache Trout

While wildlife officials can help the trout by removing non-native species, some things are outside their control. And the increase of wildfires in the Western U.S. is at the top of that list.

“The Apache trout have always had a small habitat, which is now under threat of climate change,” Beard said.

Back in 2011, the Wallow fire quickly became the biggest and most destructive in Arizona history. When a wildfire burns through a watershed, it can take years to recover. Wallow burned through many Apache trout habitats, Beard said. “It had a massive impact that we’re still dealing with, and that was 11 years ago now,” he added.

Climate models show Arizona will likely become even hotter and drier over the next few decades, which doesn’t bode well for the state’s wildlife, including the Apache trout.

However, as long as there’s a willingness to support conservation, it’s possible to save species like the Apache trout, Beard said. He pointed to the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (currently awaiting a vote in the Senate).

“That would bring tons of conservation funding to state agencies nationwide. There’s lots of species that need help, and we can save them,” Beard said. “If you invest in it, and you have people who are passionate about it, you will see more success stories like this.”

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Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Cuenca, Ecuador, which he uses as a home base for adventures throughout the Americas. When he's not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he's hanging out with his dog Campana.