“This fish evolved alongside the Rio Grande cutthroat trout and the Rio Grande sucker. It fills a unique tropic position within the ecosystems it is found in. There is no evidence that any other fish can fill this position in place of the Rio Grande chub.”
The Rio Grande chub.
Known to few.
Known to even fewer by its much lovier latin name, Gila Pandora.
The Rio Grande Chub has a story of massive data gaps. Not a lot of research has been devoted to this fish swimming on the edge of extirpation and inching toward non-existence. The Rio Grande chub has traditionally inhabited the upper Rio Grande and Pecos River systems in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. It once thrived in small picturesque streams with cool flowing water, undercuts and overhanging vegetation; along with its more spoken of and revered friend, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.
Soon after I purchased my first fly rod, I made a solo trip to the river. The evening air was cool but the rays of the setting sun still felt warm. The dogs chased a wayward fawn across the river and back to its mother. After a few casts of my Parachute Adams, along the deepest channel, in a bend in the flow, I caught a tiny silvery fish; whose scales reflected the warm colors of that summer sunset. What was this sweet little fish with big eyes, forked tail and a long snout? It obviously was not a trout. I studied and photographed the fish and later came home to research it. All I could discover was its name. The Rio Grande chub. When asking around, I learned that some local people in my area considered them rough fish or trash fish and tossed them on to the grassy bank to die. But this was a wild indigenous fish. How could this fish have less value in the ecosystem than a trout? Over the years, I began to catch less and less of the little chubs on my trips to the river. Just a few weeks ago, I casually netted a sick and dying chub while guiding a client. What was happening to this little fish? Did anyone care?
Petitioned for the Endangered Species List in 2004.
Again petitioned in 2014.
Again, not listed.
In 2016, a published study once again urged the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Gila Pandora as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) in the NM State Wildlife Action Plan. While in Texas it had been given a status of Threatened. So what protections are in place for this fish of a mere five inches and given just a few lines of consideration in journals-- despite having declined in population by as much as 75%, nearly 150 years after Edward Drinker Cope recorded it in 1872? It seems none. Once the most common fish in the Rio Grande watershed, the Rio Grande chub once lived in tandem with the Rio Grande cutthroat. As the cutthroat’s populations steadily declined, so did the chub’s, but seemingly in silence.
Similar are the stories of the Rio Grande cutthroat, the Gila Trout and the Apache Trout; the introduction of the Brook trout and Brown trout replaced them as the top predator in their ecological community. These native fish, including the chub, quickly became prey and soon struggled to survive. Add in our other top repeat anthropogenic offenders of habitat loss, destruction of riparian areas from cattle grazing and habitat fragmentation due to dams and irrigation diversions. You know the story by now.
Have you ever seen an Instagram post of a grip and grin with a Rio Grande chub? Or used the hashtag #gilapandora? Have you read about rescue efforts to save the chub from recent wildfire burn scars? Why not? It’s just not sexy enough. Not enough of us seem to care or even know about the Rio Grande chub. Ted Turner’s ranches in Colorado and New Mexico seem to be not only aware of this little fish but also have developed conservation strategies for protecting Gila Pandora. Noticing range wide declines in Rio Grande chub populations, Turner Ranches have set goals to conserve and restore populations of the chub as well as contribute much needed and valuable information to conservation scientists regarding their status, hopefully filling in those aforementioned profound data gaps.
In the early summer, the first hummingbird to arrive at my feeder is the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, followed by the Ruby Throated, then the Rufus and sometimes the Calliope. If one of these birds one summer did not arrive, my heart would ache. In early August the wild bergamot begins to bloom near my home. It's big purple flowers and unmistakable fragrance are something I look forward to after the wild strawberries and raspberries of earlier months have waned. If the bergamot disappeared from the forest I would search for it. When the Rio Grande chub began to pass from sight, I went looking. It compelled me to to share this story with you. For the chub. For any species on the edge. For any fish, firefly or snail that is forsaken. To encourage you to be aware of your natural surroundings.
Final thoughts on the significance that a single species holds.
Quote: "Community ecology
Rio Grande chub evolved as part of unique community of fish in the Rio Grande Basin that also included Rio Grande cutthroat trout and Rio Grande sucker. Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a piscivore/insectivore, evolved as the top predator in this system. Rio Grande sucker, an algivore/insectivore, evolved as a benthic feeder. The Rio Grande chub evolved as an insectivore/omnivore. This algivore-piscivore-insectivore assemblage is thought to provide a balance to allow the survival of the entire fish community. (Zuckerman and Bergersen 1986)"
Thank you so much for reading. Let me know your thoughts/observations.