During recent a field trip to New Mexico’s Carson National Forest that included several government agencies, environmental organizations and companies partnering to restore the area’s drained wetlands, Toner Mitchell from Trout Unlimited—an organization that conserves coldwater fisheries and their watersheds—began explaining why New Mexico’s Rio Grande cutthroat trout are such an important element of the Carson’s environment.

“The Rio Grande cutthroat is not just a pretty fish,” Mitchell told a group of 50 or so people. “In this case, it’s somewhat of a canary in the coal mine. It’s an indicator of how we’re doing on climate change.”

The effects of gradual erosion on wetlands in the Carson have had a negative impact on many of the area’s organisms, but one part of 1.5 million-acre forest’s diverse wildlife that has been hit especially hard is the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, or RGCT. The future of New Mexico’s state fish became a central point of discussion within the trip’s larger purpose of viewing watershed restoration projects, creating common ground for Trout Unlimited and individuals from companies like its Coca-Cola, which has invested in several projects in the area to bolster the company’s water replenishment program.

Cutthroat Trout

The RGCT became a candidate for ESA (Endangered Species Act) listing in 2008 after decades of habitat degradation, introduction of nonnative species to its habitat, drought and rising water temperatures due to climate change, among other factors. The cutthroat still hasn’t been listed as endangered, but it’s a vulnerable species that the U.S. Forest Service and Trout Unlimited have worked to protect in the Carson.  

The Forest Service is taking action. Comanche Creek, a tributary of the Rio Costilla that lies at around 10,000 feet in a mountain basin called the Valle Vidal, is specifically designated for cutthroat; a few thousand feet below, a fish passage barrier in the Comanche prevents invasive trout from swimming upstream and competing with the cutthroat.

'The Rio Grande cutthroat is not just a pretty fish. In this case, it’s somewhat of a canary in the coal mine. It’s an indicator of how we’re doing on climate change.'

But advocates for ESA listing the Rio Grande cutthroat still believe listing would provide the species’ necessary protection and public recognition. In July, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the USFWS denied ESA protection for cutthroat in 2014. Mitchell, TU’s Water and Habitat program manager in New Mexico, doesn’t think an ESA listing would do the cutthroat any favors in reality. Neither does the Forest Service.

“If the fish is considered endangered, then we’re worried about individual fish,” said Cal Joyner, regional forester for the Southwestern Region. “So we need to keep it off of that list. It’s an affirmative responsibility of a federal land manager… keeping it from being listed is actually more important than other uses on the landscape when push comes to shove, legally.”

Cutthroat Trout

If the area’s tributaries and wetlands continue to be revitalized, the presence of cold groundwater and healthy streamflows will restore cutthroat populations to habitats they’d abandoned or been pushed out of by other species. Trout Unlimited wants to get the RGCT back to public spaces—where they can be seen and appreciated by people—and Mitchell thinks Coca-Cola’s involvement in the Comanche’s restoration represents a new chapter for Trout Unlimited in achieving that goal. Mitchell has been fishing for around 45 years—ever since he discovered the gear that belonged to his grandfather, who had relocated to Taos from Chicago in the 1940s. Unfortunately, when it comes to RGCT, Mitchell doesn’t have the fishing opportunities he has enjoyed in decades past.

I talked to Mitchell about the problems the cutthroat have encountered in recent years and the future he envisions for New Mexico’s state fish.

Trout Habitat

Cutthroat have been candidate for listing as an endangered species since 2008, but it still hasn’t been listed, and you’ve been against that proposal. Why?

Trout Unlimited put together a recommendation for not listing the fish. The reason behind that was that one of the things the fish suffers from is lack of recognition from New Mexicans; the listing would give it the status of a museum piece. But what we’re mainly concerned about is that ESA listing would trigger land use restrictions. That could possibly impact ranchers. Trout fishermen might be prohibited from fishing cutthroat streams. So there are risks for sabotage…people taking a bucket of brown trout above the barrier, for example, and putting them in the water. We didn’t want cutthroat to become public enemy number one. The advocates for listing have intentions that are in the right place, but they’re in the intellectual realm. Frankly, I just think the cutthroat would be the ultimate loser in the listing scenario. You don’t want to be a generation of people responsible for letting a very unique being disappear from the earth. For New Mexico, cutthroat are part of our heritage. They evolved in this landscape. As a trout fisherman, I’ve caught larger, harder-fighting fish, but that’s not what this is about. Cutthroat are as New Mexican as enchiladas and frito pie.

A lot of people tend to think of interaction between people and fish—mainly through fishing—as a negative thing for the health of fish populations, but you mentioned that it’s a necessary dynamic for valuing the well-being of cutthroat. What makes the relationship between communities and fish populations beneficial?

Well, I’ll speak first from the perspective of a trout fishermen. It’s really weird, but to many fisherman, a trout is a trout is a trout. As long as it’s a trout, this issue doesn’t require any more thought. But the Rio Grande cutthroat evolved in this landscape, so it’s somewhat of a cultural icon. For the early Indians and Spanish that came after them, it’s the only fish they saw in this environment. Brown trout are from Germany, rainbow are from the Pacific Rim. So one thing is to get over the “a trout is a trout” thing. Another is to show everyone how uniquely New Mexican this fish is. Those who would list this fish assume everyone understands its value, but people aren’t going recognize that. I would imagine even you didn’t know a whole lot about them. So why would you care about this fish? I’d say that people interacting with them—seeing them, catching them, touching them—is the way to get over that “a trout is a trout” thing. Essentially, you want people to fish for them so they develop a fan club. When I was a kid I used to catch them a lot. I grew up here. Since then they’ve diminished little by little, and now we’re in a situation where I can’t really just take my son out and catch one. We need to get them to a place where it’s a very normal recreational experience. So we have to help cutthroat get down to lower elevations and make it easily accessible, and the Comanche Creek work that Coca-Cola is involved in is moving us in that direction.

One of the problems you have to deal with is the fact that cutthroat don’t do well when they compete with other fish. Why is that?

It depends on the species. The main threat from rainbow trout is genetic; cutthroat trout are genetically close enough to the rainbow to mate with them and produce viable offspring. So the rainbow trout’s threat is existential to cutthroat because they can make fish that just aren’t cutthroat anymore. The thing about brown trout is that they spawn in the fall, so their babies are born in the winter, which makes them a little larger than cutthroat that are born in the spring. They also run them off ideal territory, so they just generally wear cutthroat down over time. The other thing about browns is that when they spawn in the fall, streams are at their lowest, so in our areas, they spawn more successfully. Cutthroat spawn in runoff and high water. Brown trout are also piscivorous; if they can fit a cutthroat in their mouths, they will eat them.

'For New Mexico, cutthroat are part of our heritage... they are as New Mexican as enchiladas and frito pie.'

In some streams, the Department of Game and Fish will either poison invasive fish or create new habitats for them. Also, there’s a bridge on the Comanche that is actually a barrier. It keeps brown and rainbow from being able to migrate up into the designated cutthroat areas and affect them.

Healthy trout populations are just one benefit that comes from these wetlands being restored. What has it been like to be part of this restoration process with other companies and organizations and see the results of all these partners working together?

I’ve always been a fisherman, but so little of my work these days is about trout. Trout is just one thing I bring to the table. But if you had asked me ten years ago if I’d be helping trout by way of other priorities, I might have questioned you. I used to think “I should be able to just work with trout!” Now I have to think “Okay, to help trout, I have to work very closely with ranchers.” I guess I can’t view their value in a vacuum. Like, for example, the fact that Coke is involved in this: They’re involved in a financial way, but truth be told, they’re a corporate citizen of our society. They provide funds, but they believe in what they’re doing. They bought in, and it requires their buy-in to give these projects legs. I wouldn’t have thought that before.

What do you want to see happen now?

We have wanted for some time for this Comanche effort to spawn other efforts elsewhere. One thing I’ve always wanted to see in New Mexico is for people to embrace that we have this unique fish, and it’s a part of who we are. I look forward to that becoming a story. I think as the Coca-Cola partnership expands, so will that message. Some people I’ve talked to about this project give it a cynical look, but Coca-Cola is helping us achieve our goals. It’s great that this project is taking on a different look, and I think it’s worth celebrating.