The lengthy process took a quantum splash forward recently when Trout Unlimited, the nation's leading cold-water conservation organization, anted up a $205,000 check--which commits the Arizona Game and Fish Department to match the gift dollar for dollar.
More than half of the state's 36 native fish species are on the federal list, but the Apache trout is special.
"Apache trout are as much a part of our heritage as the Grand Canyon and the Sonoran desert," says Carl Lee, president of Trout Unlimited's Arizona chapter.
These yellow-gold fish with olive-green dorsals, one of two native trout in Arizona, are found only in the streams and lakes of the White Mountains. A century ago, they grew up to 24 inches long and weighed upwards of 6 pounds as they roamed some 600 miles of streams.
"Apache trout restoration is one of our top conservation priorities and an investment in a unique American resource," says Joe McGurrin, resources director for the 127,000 member national organization.
Primary thanks for the reprieve from species extinction goes to members of the Old Pueblo chapter of Trout Unlimited in Tucson. "These were the anglers who got the ball rolling," said McGurrin. "They'd make the four-hour trek from Southern Arizona desert to eastern Arizona mountain country several times a year to work on stream recovery, building new homes for these fish."
Local chapter president Jim Lynch doesn't see any irony here, just dedication. "That's what we do," he says. "Most sportsmen and outdoor recreationalists have a responsible attitude and want to give back to their sport. They're eager to find ways to do that, and the Apache trout project gave them a vehicle to do so."
The Old Pueblo Trout Unlimited chapter was aware that the White Mountain Apache Tribe had started closing some streams to angling for these diminishing fish populations as early as 1955. A federal-state-tribal fish recovery effort started in the early 1960s, but initial conservation efforts were not enough, and Apache trout became federally protected in 1973. The fish stayed in the endangered category for a couple of years until stocking of hatchery-reared fingerlings resumed and recovery hopes brightened.
Local Trout Unlimited members couldn't wait to help. "We'd been doing single stream projects every year, but we wanted to do something on a larger scale," says Lynch.
When the Bring-Back-The-Natives initiative and the Embrace-A-Stream campaigns were announced, Trout Unlimited members were the first to start work on the west fork of the Black River.
"This was a keystone in the efforts to recover approximately 23 miles of streams running through the watershed," Lynch said. "This is one of the few projects ever conceived at the private sector level that's been taken on up through various agencies. We partnered with the tribe, Arizona Game and Fish, the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and then went on the road and put together a broad-based coalition of citizen support--from hiking clubs and fishing groups to 4-H, Boy Scouts, Mothers for Clean Water and the Sierra Club."
Duane Shroufe, Arizona Game and Fish director, is impressed by the collaborative efforts of groups that don't always have like agendas.
"Volunteers from a myriad of organizations indicate just what a partnership operation this has been," he says. "Without this dedication, hours of manual labor and the dollar donations, we'd never be at the point we are now, and hopefully in the near future, we'll come full circle in seeing the Apache trout become the first native fish de-listed from the endangered species roster by way of conservation measures."
Interior Secretary Gale Norton contributed to the kudos, calling the project part of the overall course of action to "protect the health of aquatic habitat, restore fish resources and provide opportunities to enjoy the benefits of these healthy systems."
This grassroots success ensued as a result of cumulative human toil. The habitat improvement plan called for installation of 30 miles of riparian fencing to protect stream segments from damage by livestock and other large animals. Volunteers signed up to build berms and barriers to make streams safe.
"On work weekends, I'd look out and see 150-200 people rolling up their sleeves to drive several hundred miles roundtrip and spend their weekends rolling rocks and logs," Lynch says with pride.
There's still work left to do, and additional recovery projects will resume in the spring of 2004, when seven double-fish barriers will be built on the Little Colorado and Black rivers, Maintenance work will also commence on several creeks within the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, and non-native fish will be removed from these waters. These efforts are designed to ensure isolation and protection of the pure Apache trout, which have 13 known distinct genetic lineages.
National Trout Unlimited officials believe a successful recovery will bring anglers--and lots of cash--into the state.
"We like all kinds of wild trout from browns to rainbows, but when you have something this unique and special, a well-managed fishery could be a tremendous regional economic boost," said Trout Unlimited's McGurrin.
Arizona Game and Fish decision-makers are so enthused with the pending project culmination involving Apache trout that they've already announced a new partnership effort: a planned decade-long recovery program for another threatened Arizona native salmonid, the Gila trout. This fish, the other half of the duo of golden natives, is found in eastern Arizona high country and wilderness mountain streams of western New Mexico.
Dr. David Propst of the New Mexico Game and Fish Conservation Services Division is already hard at work on that effort.
"The recovery journey to date has been interesting, scenic, adventurous, and on occasion, quite bumpy," he notes.
Still, we're dealing here with dedicated optimists. "We're increasingly hopeful we can down-list the Gila in the not-too-distant future," says Larry Riley, an Arizona member of the recovery team.
Amid the sound of backslapping over ongoing Apache trout recovery successes can be heard the voice of Old Pueblo Trout Unlimited president Jim Lynch, constantly reminding all players that it's not over until it's over.
"We run about four work weekends per year, and there's always a need for volunteer activism. We need between 100-200 volunteer workers for each project, people who love the outdoors and area willing to show up and roll rocks as their part of this unique partnership."