Trout Unlimited Launches Film to Celebrate Gila Wilderness Centennial


From TU:

Gila explores native trout and habitat recovery following the Whitewater Baldy Fire of 2012

Trout Unlimited has officially launched the film, Gila, which details the challenges facing the future of the Gila Wilderness and its most recent success story – the Gila trout recovery.

Gila is about the importance of this special landscape to American conservation history, the people who protect it, and the recovery of the area’s namesake trout,” said Josh Duplechian, senior producer at Trout Unlimited. “It’s meant to highlight the incredible collaborative efforts that have taken place since the Whitewater Baldy Fire of 2012 to keep this epic place wild.

As one of the Southwest’s few native trout – and one of the rarest overall – the Gila trout can only be found in select high-elevation areas straddling the New Mexico and Arizona border. After decades of population decline from habitat loss, fires, overfishing, water diversion, non-native trout, and human impacts, the trout was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973.

In the years leading up to the new millennium, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked closely with New Mexico Game and Fish, Arizona Game and Fish, and the U.S. Forest Service to restore Gila trout populations. In 2003, these entities and the University of New Mexico formalized the Gila Trout Recovery Plan to build upon these efforts.

Thanks to the success of these efforts, in 2006, the Gila trout was upgraded to threatened under the ESA, and anglers were also allowed to fish for these trout for the first time in about 50 years. But as fate would have it, the fire hit the heart of Gila trout habitat in 2012, impacting nearly half of the existing Gila trout streams and requiring three helicopter-mediated evacuations of unique populations before they were lost to the advancing flames.

Since then, Trout Unlimited and our partners have been dedicated to restoring the unique and irreplaceable native trout species of the Southwest. Our 5-year, $40 million Keystone Agreement with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) have catalyzed the restoration efforts started by TU’s grassroots volunteers in the Middle Fork Gila River headwaters.

To date, the U.S. Forest Service and TU have secured over $1.6 million dollars in BIL/IRA funding for multiple projects in the Middle Fork headwaters. This has not only allowed us to hire a full-time staff member to oversee these projects, but has also allowed us to bolster existing project work at Little Turkey Creek started by our local TU chapter.

“This is kind of a forgotten, but nonetheless important, area of the Colorado River Basin,” said Eric Head, Gila Trout project manager for TU. “The water here eventually flows down to Safford, Arizona, which relies on it for cotton production, and onward to the Phoenix Valley. So, the cleaner, colder, and longer lasting we can make the water up here at the headwaters, the better,” he said.

In conjunction with students from New Mexico State University (NMSU), Western New Mexico University, our local Gila-Rio Grande TU chapter president and NMSU professor Jeff Arterburn, and retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jim Brooks, a total of 1,637 willows have been planted along Little Turkey Creek in the Wilderness area to stabilize the stream banks and restore lost habitat. Around 100 rock structures have also been installed to reduce sediment and erosion and slow the flow of Little Turkey Creek to be more conducive to Gila trout habitat. So far, 83 percent of their willow plantings have been taking hold and the ones planted in previous years are now blossoming on their own, with new stem growth up to 2 feet long – a promising harbinger for the future.

As we continue to face an increasingly hotter and drier future, uncertainty abounds about the future of our public lands, native trout, and special places. What we do know, however, is that many people care about preserving wild country for the next 100 years.

Trout Unlimited is the nation’s oldest and largest coldwater fisheries conservation organization dedicated to caring for and recovering America’s rivers and streams so our children can experience the joy of wild and native trout and salmon. Across the country, TU brings to bear local, regional and national grassroots organizing, durable partnerships, science-backed policy muscle, and legal firepower on behalf of trout and salmon fisheries, healthy waters and vibrant communities.


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