Oujournalist’s Blog

The blog of a freelancing journalist in Arizona

Endangered fish to be re-established in Pinal County May 2, 2011

Filed under: green,Pinal County,travel,wildlife — Candace Hughes @ 12:16 am
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Small fish to be brought back to original location

By Candace S. Hughes

Superior — The Gila topminnow, a small species of endangered fish native to Arnett Creek in eastern Pinal County, may be reintroduced this fall as the Arizona Game and Fish Department works with various groups to restore the six-inch mosquito eater to one of its homes.

Arnett Creek and Telegraph Canyon near Picket Post Mountain and the Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park will be the site of the reintroduction of the fish in a renovated stream where a fish barrier has been constructed to keep out non-native predatory fish, said Tony Robinson, a wildlife specialist supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Thompson is working with Superior rancher Frank Heron who has grazing allotments in Tonto National Forest. He also is assisted by forest service officials as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in bringing the fish back to their native swimming holes.

The Gila topminnow now are enjoying the algae in Ayer Lake at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, which has helped raise threatened and endangered species of fish since 1971, Thompson said.

Listed as endangered in 1967, the Gila topminnow once was the most common fish in southern Arizona and was found in the Gila and Santa Cruz rivers as well as springs and washes and cottonwood and willow-lined streams.

Along with volunteers and other employees, Thompson is working to reintroduce desert pupfish, Gila chub and razorback suckers – all endangered species of fish once native to Pinal County.

In addition, the groups are attempting to restore the loach minnow and spikedace, which are threatened species once found in Pinal County.

The Gila chub once was native to Arnett Creek, but hasn’t been recorded there since 1945. Robinson will reintroduce this fish in the spring.

None of the fish grow large enough to be game species, and only two wild populations are found in or close to Pinal County – in Aravaipa Creek. They are the spikedace, listed as threatened in 1986, and loach minnow, listed as threatened in 1986.

The green sunfish, a predator, as well as the drought, water pollution, ground water pumping, destruction of habitat, water diversion and stream channelization have caused the fish to disappear from rivers and streams.

Heron, who with his family has run cattle in the Superior area for a number of years, said the drought is the primary source of loss of fish. While he had 300 cattle before the drought, he’s now down to 16, said Heron, who lives at 36615 E. U.S. 60 near Hewitt Station Road.

“I started cooperating with that deal up in the canyon 10 years ago I guess,” said Heron, who has a grazing allotment for 100 sections. “It’s very dry and there’s very little water.”

“In order to achieve our goals we work with private landowners or ranchers with allotments. This is the only way we can get anything done,” Thompson said.

Once Tonto National Forest officials complete approval, Thompson will again be up in Arnett Creek with supplies of the little fish.

“Our goal is to be able to down list from endangered to threatened or take them all the way off the list,” said Thompson. “We’re trying to get populations back up to the levels they once were at where they were plentiful,” he explained.

“Our mission is to conserve fish and wildlife for future generations — not just the ones we consume but the ones we don’t consume,” he added.

In addition to Arizona Game and Fish employees, various private individuals and groups have helped by donating money, building fish barriers and assisting with the reintroduction of fish. They include the Arizona Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and angler and fly casting groups.

The Arboretum cooperates as a holding tank for two of the endangered species — desert pupfish, listed in 1986, and the Gila topminnow, listed in 1967.

Ayer Lake, at the Arboretum, was constructed in the late 1920s when a dam was built, and originally was to hold water to irrigate plants. However, “Our articles of incorporation and our overall mission include wildlife as well as plants,” said Mark Bierner, the park’s director.

Ayer Lake has been an artificial lake with pumped ground water for a long time, he explained. “In this immediate area, there aren’t many places where there’s permanent water here year round.”

Queen Creek may not always have water in the area seen by Arboretum visitors, but in the eastern part of the property there is always water, Bierner said. With the lake and the creek water, wildlife are drawn to the area, he explained.

“We have a very healthy ecosystem with two permanent sources of water and that makes us special and unique. Even in the driest time of the year we have water up in the eastern part of our property in Queen Creek,” he bragged.

“We do cooperate in raising native fish species and the only known predator in the lake is crayfish,” he said. “We haven’t been concerned about ways of controlling them because the solutions don’t fit our mission. “You can’t really trap them and make a significant difference and we’re not about to use chemicals,” he added.

Because Queen Creek doesn’t flow into the lake, predatory fish can’t get into the body of water, he said. “It’s quite a healthy little lake of a couple of acres with the same food chain as in any typical lake including algae.”

No fishing is allowed in Ayer Lake and the fish are not fed, Bierner added. There are “thousands and thousands” of half-inch long Gila topminnows in the lake, and fewer desert pupfish, Robinson said.

In addition to Ayer Lake, the pupfish are raised in ponds in the Nature Conservancy’s Lower San Pedro River Preserve at Dudleyville. “They once were widespread in low elevation streams with slow moving water, and the edges of lakes and springs in the Gila River basin,” Thompson said.

“There are no longer any naturally occurring populations in Arizona, but there are reintroduced populations. In Pinal County, we tried to establish them in Queen Creek in 1978, and in Mesquite Spring in 1983, but both attempts failed to establish populations. We’re not sure why right now,” he added.

The Gila chub, listed as endangered in 2005, is being protected at the Nature Conservancy’s Muleshoe Ranch Preserve in Redfield Canyon and Hot Springs Canyon in the Galiuro Mountains east of Mammoth. They were last found during 2000 in Mineral Creek near the Asarco Ray mine, Robinson said.

The Game and Fish Department also is reintroducing fish that aren’t endangered or threatened to locations where they once flourished. This includes the longfin dace, which was reintroduced in Mineral Creek in 2006 and is doing “pretty well,” he added.

Cooperation with the mine and Government Springs Ranch was crucial in the reintroduction of the longfin dace, he added.

The Nature Conservancy’s Lower San Pedro Preserve site near Dudleyville also assists in raising the razorback sucker, an endangered species, as well as desert pupfish and Gila topminnows, which are doing well and plans are to restock them throughout the state, Robinson said.

Arizona Game and Fish is working cooperatively with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management on all reintroductions of listed fish species. The San Carlos Tribe also is working to conserved endangered and threatened species of fish.

Threatened species are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of their range, while an endangered species is in danger of extinction throughout all or in a significant portion of their range.

A recovery plan is written for each species stating criteria for down listing from endangered to threatened and for removal from one of the lists, with the criteria different for each fish.

“Basically, we try to re-establish the species into as many of the streams that they historically occupied as possible or feasible,” Robinson explained.

More information

Volunteers wishing to help or donate to the efforts may reach Tony Robinson at 623-487-1071 or send him an e-mail at trobinson@azgfd.gov.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department Web site also has information on endangered species at http://www.azgfd.gov.

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