Drought, Fires Threaten Southwest’s Fish and Wildlife

Why are rescue missions being staged for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow?

Sizzling, record-breaking temperatures and some of the lowest snowpack levels on record in the Southern Rockies have combined to dry up segments of the Rio Grande River that provide key habitat for fish and wildlife.

Andrew Black and other anglers in New Mexico are restricting their time on the river during the cooler parts of the day to prevent stressing fish struggling with low flows and warm temperatures. Photo by Jeremy Romero.

And in northwest Colorado, a stretch of the Yampa River is closed to fishing because of low flows. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has asked anglers to avoid fishing in other parts of the state when it’s hot. Colorado state wildlife officials say low flows and high temperatures result in lower dissolved oxygen levels and struggling with a line could lead to a fish’s death even if it’s released.

Coloradans and New Mexicans are being urged to fish early or later in the day when it’s cooler.

A Disturbing New Normal

The hotter, dryer weather is creating a “new normal” in the Southwestern U.S., affecting wildlife, communities and outdoor activities across the region. The Denver Post reports that state water authorities fear the main stem of the Rio Grande won’t flow far into New Mexico this summer. In New Mexico, public access to the 1.6-million-acre Santa Fe National Forest just reopened July 9th after being closed since June 1st. The 1.5-million acre Carson National Forest closed June 27th and reopened July 10th due to acute drought, high fire danger and lack of firefighting resources. Parts of the Cibola National Forest are closed, too.

Several fires have broken out in parched forests, scorching hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. In southwest Colorado, public access to the San Juan National Forest was temporarily prohibited in early June when fires erupted, the first total closure in the forest’s 113-year history.

And summer has barely begun.

Megafires are a growing threat to wildlife. NWF supported recently passed legislation to address the increasing prevalence of these natural disasters.

Southwest Colorado, northern New Mexico and parts of eastern Arizona are in extreme to exceptional drought, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The hardest-hit areas had far-below-average or scant snow this winter.

Much of the water in the West comes from mountain snowpack, which flows into streams, rivers and reservoirs when the snow melts in the spring. Eighty percent of the water used in Colorado comes from snow, so low snowpack means less water overall. Warmer springs mean an earlier snowmelt, which can create problems for irrigators and outdoor recreationists during the summer. State park officials say the water level in southern New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir is 18 feet lower than last year and some spots might have to be closed to boating.

Trout, Bighorn Sheep and Bears

Sportsmen and wildlife watchers didn’t need the reports of disturbingly low mountain snowpack to know it was going to be a long, hot summer. Andrew Black, the National Wildlife Federation’s public lands field director, and Jeremy Romero, NWF’s Upper Rio Grande Wildlife Connectivity and Corridor Coordinator, who both live in Santa Fe, N.M., broke out their fishing rods earlier than normal this year.

“Andrew and I anticipated that with the lack of snowpack, fishing was going to happen a lot earlier,” Romero says.

“Trout are a cold-water fish. When you start to get into warmer temperatures and lower, warmer water, the fish get stressed,” Black says. “Under these conditions, it’s so important for anglers to use restraint and discretion to protect health of the fishery.” 

For example, Black carries a thermometer in his fly vest and will stop fishing when the water hits 67 degrees.

Some intermittent streams that wildlife depend on have disappeared. “Intermittent means nonexistent at this point. We have seen more bighorn sheep congregating directly on the banks of the river, almost where we’re fishing,” Black adds.

Another big game-changer as climate change fuels weather extremes is what is becoming a nearly year-round fire season in the West. So-called “megafires” burn bigger, hotter and more erratically, sometimes raging so intensely that the soil is sterilized, making it difficult to restore the soils. Rivers and streams are choked by sediment when heavy rains wash down hillsides stripped of trees and other vegetation. A majority of the adult trout died in 2002 in a premier fly-fishing stretch of Colorado’s South Platte River after flooding followed a huge wildfire. The insect population crashed and it has taken several years for fish populations to rebuild.

Wildlife biologists say the critters on land have an innate ability to sense an approaching fire and are good at getting out of the way. But some get caught. State wildlife employees rescued a bear cub stranded alone in a nearly 107,000-acre blaze still burning in southwest Colorado. 

State wildlife biologists treat an orphan bear cub whose paws were burnt in the Spring Fire in southern Colorado. The bear will spend time at a rehab center before being released in the wild. Photo by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

It’s not all bad news. Many forests evolved with fire and need to burn periodically to be rejuvenated. Years of suppressing fires led to an unnatural and dangerous build-up of fuels. A post-fire landscape can be more biologically diverse. The hope is that a change this year in the way the U.S. Forest Service funds firefighting will free up money for proactive management to restore forest lands and increase forests’ resilience. The National Wildlife Federation and state affiliates worked with partners and lawmakers from both parties to help secure this important victory.

Even so, we are likely to see many changes in familiar landscapes. Cheatgrass and other invasive species often take over after a fire, displacing native plants like sagebrush that mule deer, greater sage-grouse and other wildlife depend on. Warmer temperatures can also affect wildlife, forcing them to change where and when they move.

“Whether it’s wildlife moving around on the landscape or sportsmen moving their times around, we’re going to have to adapt,” Black said.

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