As a fly fisherman with a weakness for small, high mountain creeks, I imagine sometimes that whoever designed New Mexico’s state flag was inspired by her state fish. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout, of course, is from a more spectacular palette than the flag’s simple red and yellow. Panza colorada (red belly), as the fish is known in Spanish, nevertheless seems to show every possible way the two colors can blend together. Stare at a high quality photograph of a cutthroat, scrutinize the olive back and the scales, and tell me you don’t see mutations of yellow or red in all of it. I guess one could say that the cutty is but one reflection of sunny-hued New Mexico and the flag that flies over it. Consider this the next time you see a cactus flower, horny toad, the Piedra Lumbre near Ghost Ranch, or a volcanic summer sunset.
Near the village of Pecos, New Mexico in 1541, a scouting party of the Spanish explorer Francisco de Coronado discovered a Rio Grande specimen in Glorieta Creek, becoming the first Europeans to lay eyes on a New World trout. When I was a boy, it was possible to catch one in the Rio Chiquito near my grandmother’s home in Talpa, New Mexico. Not true anymore. Since Coronado, the fish has tracked an inexorable and narrowing orbit around the toilet hole.
This has been due to a host of reasons. Human agriculture with its livestock and its flood irrigation silted and warmed cutthroat waters a lot faster than the species was able to adapt. Cutthroat trout were plentiful and yummy, the Spanish settlers, hungry. Whole landscapes were grazed, mined, and logged to the nub. In the late 1800s, rainbow and brown trout were stocked around the country for their sporting qualities and to replace depleted ancestral natives; these introduced fish flourished at the expense of what natives remained. Then roads penetrated cutthroat habitat, and subsequent development took a horrible toll on the fish. The most recent nail in this gorgeous trout’s coffin has been the rapid warming of our planet.
One of the few places where the Rio Grande cutthroat remains strong is the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area northeast of Taos. Essentially the roof of New Mexico, this block of steep mountains stops a lot of storm clouds and extracts enough precipitation to feed three cutthroat stream systems. In recent years, there has been a groundswell of support for ceasing to study the Columbine Hondo and permanently protecting it in its most sustainable ecological and, yes, economic state. Federal legislation has been introduced to designate Columbine Hondo as a wilderness area; all you Truchacabrones should hope the bill will pass ( more info, http://www.columbinehondo.org/) .
Societally beneficial reasons don’t seem to exist for opening Columbine Hondo to development or resource extraction. In spite of being surrounded by two ski area towns and a molybdenum mine, the area is extremely rough and unfragmented country, indicating a water cycle of the highest possible value to downstream villages, irrigators, and Rio Grande cutthroats. Also, wildlife managers hoping to fortify and expand cutthroat metapopulations see promise in the fact that rainbow and brown trout are still somewhat at bay. These and other factors make the Columbine Hondo a powerful economic engine for northern New Mexico, especially in current times as tourism grows ever more important.
As of this writing, cutties in Goose Creek (tributary to the Red River), Columbine Creek, and Rio Hondo are doing their part to help their own cause. Females are flapping their tails over snowmelt-washed gravel, digging nests and laying eggs for the brilliantly-colored bucks to fertilize. A landlside in the Columbine Hondo – by introducing huge silt loads into streams – would eliminate a generation of fish, if not two or three. Generally speaking, however, the most likely and pernicious threat over time would be road construction, which, though not doing its damage in one shot, would gradually degrade spawning habitat and drive the cutthroats off the cliff of oblivion.
There are some who do not understand why this would be such a tragedy. Time marches on, they might think, our destiny is reached at a price. Though difficult to deny, this statement is strangely easy to argue with in the context of what the northern New Mexico landscape represents to all the life forms that reside there. Like the rest of the state, this region is unique for its history and, perhaps more important, the high value we place on it as a source of material and spiritual sustenance. I feel in my gut that we are correct in doing so, if only for the simple fact that a leaf can not exist without a root. Our history and destiny are inextricable. We destroy one at the expense of the other.