A Fishy Surprise: Arizona Native Fish Survive 2003 Aspen Fire

July 14, 2004

PHOENIX — Against all odds, they survived the fire.
A University of Arizona student biologist has located a school of Gila chub in Sabino Creek that managed to survive last year’s Aspen Fire on Mt. Lemmon in Tucson. The school consists of three adult fish and about 200 juveniles.

The Gila chub is an Arizona native fish and a species of special concern to the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Last July, department biologists helped rescue about 1,000 Gila chub from Sabino Creek so they wouldn’t succumb to the heavy debris flows from the fire.

The department confirmed the student’s find last week. Much to biologists’ surprise, it appears that about one-tenth of a mile of stream remained clear of debris and ash that destroyed most of the Gila chub habitat at Sabino Creek. Don Mitchell, a Tucson-based fish biologist, says one group of young is estimated to be about a year old, the other group is still just in Mitchell’s words, “two eyes and a wiggle.”

“This is important because we had previously thought these fish were gone, and to find three of them who managed to escape what the others fell victim to and reproduce is pretty exciting,” says Mitchell.

At this point the existing habitat is very small, but it’s full of fish. The surviving school of Gila chub was lucky enough to be in the upper end of the available habitat and the young are dispersing downstream. Since the habitat is now full, the Arizona Game and Fish Department does not plan to add any more fish to the mix at this point. Biologists plan to keep an eye on the survivors during the summer monsoons. Of the Gila chub that biologists rescued from Sabino Creek last year, 600 are being held at Bubbling Ponds fish hatchery in northern Arizona. Two hundred others are at the University of Arizona, and 200 more are at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department has conducted wildlife rescues in situations in which a species or a unique population of animals is threatened with elimination. Department biologists are currently assessing the risk to wildlife from the Willow Fire near Payson, which has destroyed more than 100,000 acres of wildlife habitat. People wishing to contribute to wildlife recovery and restoration efforts can donate to the Wildlife for Tomorrow Foundation on its Web site at wildlifefortomorrow.org.

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