Here’s the bad news: No fish has ever made it off the endangered species list without going extinct. And the good news: the Apache trout, an Arizona native, may soon become the first.
Soon, in this case, is a relative term. The trout’s imminent delisting has been reported since at least 2007, but before it can formally happen, at least 30 populations must exist. As of this spring, 32 had been identified according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but three of them didn’t count because they weren’t self-sustaining. So the official count hovers (oh so close!) at 29.
The trout's unlikely resurgence seems worth noting in light of our recent cover story on the razorback sucker, a Colorado River native whose numbers continue to dwindle despite a decades-long recovery effort. The trout and sucker's tales begin in similar places: Once abundant in their native waters, habitat degradation and the introduction of invasive species took drastic tolls on both species' populations. By the 1950s, Apache trout were found in only 30 of the 800-plus stream miles they once occupied. More recently, razorback sucker numbers crashed hard and fast: In the '80s, up to 75,000 populated Lake Mohave; by 2000, the count dropped below 3,000.
Today, however, the fishes' stories are a study in contrasts. Apache trout are viable again, while Lake Mohave razorback suckers are barely holding on (and without human help, they surely wouldn't). Now, only 50 wild suckers are estimated to survive in the lake.
Unfortunately, the keys to the trout's comeback can't be easily applied to the sucker. The trout live in cold mountain streams, at 5,900 feet and higher. Grazing, logging, road construction and agriculture have all impacted the trout's habitat, leading to unstable banks, erosion and wider, warmer streambeds. But remedying those impacts is considerably more manageable than confronting what the suckers are up against: a Colorado River "crisscrossed ... with dams."
Managing conflicts with non-native fish has also been easier. Invaders have been poisoned out of streams, and barriers have been raised at headwaters to keep them from coming back, allowing hatchery fish or members of existing wild populations to be stocked in streams. These efforts have been largely supported by anglers, who have been allowed to fish for Apache trout on a limited basis for some time.
In Lake Mohave, predation by non-native striped bass is one of the greatest threats to razorback suckers. But as wildlife officials continue to stock the lake with rainbow trout for sport fishing, a choice meal for the bass, that threat is only growing more formidable:
Which brings us to the built-in, largely intractable problem that looms over native fish recovery efforts: State wildlife agencies, which cooperate with the federal government on endangered species recovery, derive their revenue from recreational fishing. As (University of Colorado at Boulder professor Harold) Tyus put it, "The very agencies you're dependent on to recover the fish are the very agencies that are responsible for their plight."
Apache trout aren't threat-free; climate change could have a significant impact on them, for instance. But they deserve a hearty congrats. Suckers, we're still pulling for you.