Behind The Proposed Apache Trout Delisting

September 18, 2023 By: Spencer Durrant

Photo: Freshwaters Illustrated/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Last week, we reported on the proposed delisting of the Apache trout that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) made public. This is a fairly monumental bit of news, particularly in the face of so much rapidly declining habitat throughout the Rocky Mountain West. So, to help anglers understand just what goes into creating self-sustaining populations of trout, I wanted to pull back the curtain and give more details on the proposed Apache trout delisting.

I’ve reported on numerous cutthroat trout conservation and restoration projects over the past decade. Cutthroat trout aren’t currently listed under the Endangered Species Act, but only due to the monumental conservation work so many state agencies carry out each year. In the course of digging into the Apache trout story, it’s clear that a similar, if not larger, amount of effort went into potentially removing these fish from the Endangered Species List.

Apache trout are native to the White Mountains in Arizona, which are located in the eastern part of the state. Apache and Gila trout are strikingly similar, and were actually considered the same species at one point, according to the FWS. As with all of the native fish in the West, the biggest threat to Apache trout and their continued existence was the introduction of nonnative fish. Rainbows specifically share enough common DNA with Apache trout that the two species can breed, creating hybrid offspring.

When you have situations like this – native trout fighting nonnatives – the common procedure is to poison a river to remove all trout, then reintroduce only the native fish. Constructing barriers to eliminate upstream progress of nonnative fish is usually a must, since removing all nonnative fish from a given stream is usually too expensive, and doesn’t have widespread public support. Despite the need for native species back in the landscape, many wildlife agencies still have to balance providing a sport fishery of some sort. It’s common, especially in cutthroat trout restoration projects, to treat only the remote upper reaches of streams, leaving the lower, more accessible stretches full of nonnative trout. Building permanent barriers to separate the populations is a great way to ensure the native fish remain genetically pure.

And according to the FWS, that’s exactly what happened with the Apache trout. Rivers and streams were treated to remove nonnatives, barriers were built, and Apache trout were reintroduced into waters that are free from other trout.

The proposal to delist Apache trout is live, and you can give your feedback at this link.