Fires in the West: fish are vulnerable, too

Slough Creek, Yellowstone

By Rob Masonis, Trout Unlimited’s Vice President for Western Conservation

It was September 1993 when my buddy and I hiked into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to fish legendary Slough Creek just outside the northern boundary of YellowstonePark.  Five years earlier, in 1988, enormous fires had swept through the Yellowstone region turning lush, green pine forests into blackened, leafless stands of charred timber.  So when we got to our destination and rigged up, we were skeptical that the cutthroat fishing was going to live up to our expectations. 

We were pleasantly surprised.  Despite the charred trees all around us, Slough Creek was full of chunky trout eager to sip a dry.  It was, in fact, a banner day. 

The lesson I learned that day on Slough Creek is one we should be mindful of today after a summer of forest fires raging across the West:  healthy rivers can protect trout and salmon from the devastating effects of fire. 

Thanks to Smokey Bear, most people understand that fires kill wildlife.  But, because fish live in water, the impact of fires on them is not as easy to comprehend.  Yet fish are among the most vulnerable species to wildfires.  

The gravest threats to trout and salmon primarily emerge after the flames are gone.  The insects that fish eat are no longer present.  Incinerated streamside trees and shrubs no longer provide shade to keep water cool during hot summer days, so water temperatures rise.  Sediment and muddy slurry—the latter often contaminated with fire retardants and other chemicals – run off the land during rain events, smothering streambed gravel that is essential to both fish and insects. 

An example of these effects can be seen in places like Cheesman Canyon in Colorado, once home to a renowned wild trout fishery in the South Platte River, where the Hayman Fire roared through the canyon in 2002.  The river and fishery are slowly recovering, thanks in part to TU members and other local volunteers who have been planting trees and taking other restoration measures, but the healing process can take many years.  

Small, isolated populations of native trout are at highest risk from wildfires.  For example, Gila cutthroat trout were recently threatened with extinction when a 300,000 acre fire raced up the West Fork of the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, the last stronghold for these imperiled fish.  There, TU volunteers formed a “bucket brigade” to move the fish to other drainages before the fires swept through. 

While bucket brigades can avert immediate catastrophe, they are not the answer.  The answer is maintaining fish-accessible, high-quality habitats throughout a watershed so fish can avoid fire-damaged areas until those areas recover.   To that end, across the West, TU is partnering with landowners and agencies on collaborative projects that reconnect and restore streams, such as installing fish ladders at dams, replacing culverts that block fish passage with passable structures, and making irrigation systems more efficient so there is enough cool water to allow trout and salmon to move between habitats. 

Moreover, these win-win projects give an economic lift to farmers, ranchers and rural communities by modernizing operations and creating shovel-ready jobs.  Supporting the Farm Bill’s conservation programs—now up for renewal in Congress—is one way to ensure that this important work gets done. 

Our first concern with any fire should be with the loss of property and human life, and Trout Unlimited extends its sympathies to families and communities who have been hard hit by recent fires. We support efforts to control and contain fires wherever they put communities at risk.

Though in a region where wildfires are inevitable–and becoming more frequent and intense–it makes sense to manage our rivers and streams to protect the West’s valuable  trout and salmon.  Ensuring that our rivers and streams provide an interconnected network of high-quality habitats is key to that protection,  and will enable anglers to continue to experience post-fire fishing days like the one I enjoyed almost 20 years ago on Slough Creek.

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