The Comanche Creek watershed is part of the Carson National Forest’s Valle Vidal Unit in northern New Mexico. Comanche encompasses a legacy of intensive land management practices such as logging, mining, road building, and grazing.
These practices caused incised stream and tributary channels and deep headcuts, the lowering of riparian water tables, and the conversion of wet meadows to dryland vegetation and shrubs. Since 2015, leadership and funding from the National Forest Foundation has enabled Trout Unlimited to reverse these impacts and enhance Comanche’s capacity to store and convey water.
Comanche Creek is the largest tributary to the Rio Costilla, whose watershed constitutes the largest metapopulation of Rio Grande cutthroat – New Mexico’s state fish - throughout its range. Comanche provides habitat resiliency, migration alternatives, and redundancy for this imperiled species. A healthy Comanche Creek improves survival odds of the Rio Grande cutthroat in the event of catastrophic wildfires, drought, and other scenarios associated with climate change.
An important consideration with the cutthroat is its possible listing under the Endangered Species Act, which could trigger land use restrictions impacting ranching, recreation, and hunting so important to northern New Mexico economies. By improving hydrologic conditions in the Comanche drainage, this project promises to enhance cutthroat habitat and prevent the listing of the fish.
Across hundreds of acres, Trout Unlimited’s contractor has used logs and rocks to plug headcuts on tributaries and raise riffles in Comanche Creek. Incised streambanks have been modified to allow high flows from snowmelt and monsoon rains to access the stream’s floodplain, wetting adjacent meadows and growing high-protein forage for livestock and wildlife (the Valle Vidal is home to one of New Mexico’s most prized elk populations). Off channel wetlands were constructed as well. As a result of a rising water table, wetland vegetation is expanding, even in one of the driest years in decades.
This project is a continuation of Comanche restoration efforts dating back to 2000. Since then, a durable public/private partnership involving U.S. Forest Service, New Mexico Environment Department, NGOs such as the Quivira Coalition and Trout Unlimited, and hundreds of volunteer field workers has pioneered the use of low cost restoration techniques to rejuvenate Comanche. A particularily important partner has been the Valle Vidal Grazing Association. Especially in the last six years, the Association has been willing to adjust its operations to bolster project success, while committing its knowledge of the Valle Vidal landscape and significant labor to restoration efforts.
All told, the restoration of Comanche Creek has been a glowing testament to the necessity of wetland restoration and the power of diverse partnership, a model that should be applied to other landscapes.